In my work as a counsellor in Victoria, BC, I talk to a lot of people about depression. Although I specialize in trauma therapy, most of the folks who contact me do so because they want to feel happier (less depressed), or more at ease (less anxious). There are, of course, clear connections between trauma, depression, and anxiety, but a fuller exploration of those dynamics will have to wait for another time.
Those of us who have felt depressed at one time or another can probably relate to a whole host of experiences related to that state of being: from an abysmal lack of energy, to really struggling to find joy in things that would otherwise light up our lives. One thing that often resonates with people experiencing profound despair is the sense of isolation or withdrawal from others. For a lot of the people I see in therapy, that’s one of the most challenging factors to deal with.
Depression and Relationships
If you were to create ideal conditions in which depression would really thrive, what might that look like? Answers to that may vary, but quite often, those who feel the most depressed feel isolated, alienated, lonely, judged, misunderstood, unappreciated, disrespected, and/or mistreated or abused. Experiences like these can create a perfect storm for despair and discontent.
For me, this begs an important question: what is it about these various forms of disconnection that is so closely related to unhappiness? What does this say about our need to feel accepted, respected, liked, understood, included, valued, and a part of something?
A lot of clients I talk to who say they struggle with depression note that when things are at their worst, they are pervasively isolated and feeling very much alone. It may be fair to say in a lot of contexts that the profound sense of dissatisfaction that often comes with depression may be a response to isolation, alienation, or disenfranchisement. The quality of our social connections is a good predictor of where we fall on the scale of depression. The more we feel we belong, the more content we’re likely to feel. So the more we feel alienated or excluded, the more likely we are to feel depressed.
Depression and Withdrawal
One point that we simply cannot avoid when talking about depression is the reality that a lot of people withdraw when they’re feeling depressed. When people have had negative social experiences, it makes sense for them to pull away from others. At first, isolation may seem like a preferable alternative to the potential emotional pain that can come from living more closely with others. After all, suffering never happens in a vacuum. I believe that pain is almost always a response to something, and is often related to our interpersonal relationships and having an implicit longing for things to be different than they have been. Isolating ourselves often works to avoid situations or interactions where we’re vulnerable to negative responses from others. In this way, we mitigate the likelihood for even more suffering.
The people I’ve seen in therapy who identify as feeling depressed have described how they’ve withdrawn for a variety of reasons:
- They’re wary of being judged or misunderstood.
- They’re concerned for other people’s wellbeing, not wanting them to feel burdened by their suffering.
- They’ve been hurt too many times by others in the past.
- They anticipate rejection, and prefer not to chance it.
Withdrawing in these ways when we’re depressed can serve to uphold our dignity and preserve what sense of emotional safety we have, without it being further jeopardized. However, it can also put us in a difficult chicken-and-egg situation – a kind of feedback loop where it becomes muddy whether we’re feeling more depressed because we’ve pulled away from social connections, or whether we’ve withdrawn because we’re feeling more depressed. Perhaps in some cases, it’s both at the same time.
The Downside of Social Withdrawal
While withdrawal can help mitigate negative social encounters that may intensify our experiences of despair, it can also leave us with a sense of disconnectedness. After all, despair is often the emotional response to an unmet longing. There is something inherently satisfying in meaningful social relationships, and it can be hard (if not impossible) not to yearn for that when we’re living more isolated lives. This can be a really hard place to remain for an extended time, and is often when people reach out for help from counsellors and other professional supports.
When people remain withdrawn for extended periods, their depression often deepens. It’s at that point that many turn to drugs, alcohol, and other addictive practices as a way of coping. Studies on lab rats left in isolation with a choice between clean water and water laced with cocaine found that 9 times out of 10, the rats chose the cocaine. Those that did so eventually overdosed and died. However, when placed in enriched social environments with other rats, they rarely, if ever, chose the drugged water.
While these observations are certainly helpful when it comes to understanding addictions, they might also say a thing or two about the implications of isolation and depression. If people are more likely to turn to substances when they’re depressed, and are more likely to feel depressed when they’re isolated, then positive, supportive relationships may be like natural antidepressants.
How Positive Connections Can Help
While negative social responses from others can reinforce our feelings of depression, positive relationships and interactions can, at the very least, help us feel less alone. Sometimes our despair is especially stubborn or unwavering, and it seems like very little can help. Even in those cases, positive connections can help us stay strong. At the very least, they can’t hurt – not in the ways judgment, exclusion, or rejection can.
I like to think of supportive relationships as being like the springs on a trampoline: they hold us up, and the more we have in place, the more evenly the support is distributed. With more even distribution of support, we’re able to bounce back better. I’m generally biased toward the notion that the more social supports we have in place, the better equipped we are to face adversity in life.
What have your experiences been with depression or despair and isolation/connectedness?
Have you found that positive relationships can make a difference in feeling happier or more satisfied in life?
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.