Tackling Our Demons – the Low Down on Depression

Everyone feels a bit down from time to time. But if you're depressed emptiness and despair take over. One of the first steps towards recovery is understanding what's happening.

Everyone feels a bit down from time to time. But if you’re depressed emptiness and despair can take over. One of the first steps towards recovery is understanding what’s happening. 

Status and success don’t mean you’re immune to struggling with your mental health. Many celebrities around the world have been open about their struggles with anxiety and depression. Sometimes hearing other people’s experiences can help us feel less alone about our own.   

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been open about his struggles with depression as a teenager and the power of opening up to others. In a People Magazine interview, Johnson re-emphasized the importance of asking for help, especially for men.   

“I was an only child, and I was always a better listener than I was a communicator in terms of sharing my feelings,” he said. “And I feel like the most important thing, obviously, is communicating and realizing that asking for help when you’re down and you’re feeling wobbly or when you’re depressed is actually the most powerful thing you can do. Asking for help is not a weakness. As a matter of fact, asking for help is our superpower, and men, especially us, we fall into this trap of being really averse to vulnerability because we always want to be strong and feel like we can take on the world.”  


Everything can feel pointless 

We all know what it’s like to feel a bit down. Everything seems an effort and it’s hard to take pleasure in the things we usually enjoy. For the most part these feelings are transitory – a mood that quickly passes. But if we’re struggling with depression this sense of emptiness and despair persists, and invades every aspect of our lives. Depression can vary in duration, type and severity. But when it’s bad even the smallest tasks can seem too much. It can interfere with our ability to work, socialize, eat, sleep and have fun – we might not even make it out of bed. Depression doesn’t even have to be that severe to be a problem. It can rumble along in a low level, fluctuating fashion for months or even years. You get by, but secretly you feel everything is pointless. Only those close to you may notice that something’s wrong. 


‘You want to switch it off and stop.’ 

Oscar-winning star Emma Thompson has talked candidly about her ongoing battle with depression. She told Easy Living magazine that she has been in a state ‘when you never wash and wear the same things all the time’. ‘It’s the sort of depression that doesn’t necessarily make you want to kill yourself – you just don’t want to be, you want to switch off and stop.’ Speaking on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs she said it first happened when she was in a West End Musical. ‘I really didn’t change my clothes or answer the phone, but went into the theatre every night and was cheerful and sang the Lambeth Walk.’ She had another period of severe depression following the high-profile breakdown of her first marriage to actor Kenneth Branagh. ‘The only thing I could do was write. I used to crawl from the bedroom to the computer and just sit and write, and then I was alright because I was not present.’ Depression struck again after the birth of her child, Gala, when she was trying for another baby through IVF. Acting has helped her, she said, by allowing her to escape from the ‘voices in my head. The constant ‘must do better’, ‘must try harder’, plus ’you’re too fat and not really a very good mother’. ‘That punitive conscience is part of my psychiatric problem.’ 


Feelings of despondency 

Depression is the thief that steals away our hope, energy and drive, making it hard for us to do what we need to feel better. We find it difficult to concentrate, and become trapped in a downward spiral of negative thoughts: ‘I’m useless’, ‘what’s the point’. This leads to feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing. Comic actor and writer Stephen Fry, who suffers bipolar disorder – a mix of depressive lows and manic highs – described how his self-esteem plunged to ‘absolute zero’ in a BBC documentary he made to raise awareness of the condition. 

‘You think of death all the time even if you’re not feeling suicidal’, says Stephen Fry. 

When you’re depressed even ‘to stand up from the sofa and walk to the fridge is an act of unbelievable effort’, he said. ‘You think of death all the time even if you’re not feeling suicidal, you’re aware of death and how welcome it would be.’ 


Feelings of agitation 

But though depression is often associated with a low, despondent mood, it can just as easily make you irritable or agitated. This is often how depression shows itself in adolescents and teenagers. Comedian, Tony Slattery – whose life and career collapsed around him in 1996, triggered by a severe attack of bipolar disorder – has experienced this type of depression. In Stephen Fry’s BBC documentary he said: ‘There’s also agitated depression, there is psycho-motor depression where you’re endlessly pacing, you can’t sleep and you’re bad-tempered.’ The type of depression where fueled by lack of sleep and copious quantities of drugs and booze, you end up ‘howling at the moon and throwing your furniture into the Thames’. 


Extremes of mood 

Bipolar disorder has had a lot of publicity recently thanks to high-profile celebrities like Stephen Fry raising awareness of the condition. If you have bipolar disorder, or manic depression as it often used to be called, you switch from extreme lows to extreme highs. When you’re up you feel overly energetic and full of confidence, your body and mind in overdrive. When you’re down you suffer all the signs of major depression. Typically this mood change is gradual. Treatments for bipolar depression are different to those for general depression – speak to your doctor about pharmacological treatments, as bipolar disorder treatment may require a closer monitor of pharmacological treatments. 


Feeling cut off 

Another problem with depression is how it affects your relations with others. Depression is very isolating. It can make you feel disconnected and alone – as if there’s a barrier between yourself and others. People often withdraw socially. At the height of his illness, Slattery didn’t answer his doorbell or phone for six months. Most of his friends gave up on him and stopped calling round. He didn’t open any bills or wash. ‘I just sat,’ he told The Guardian. Pop star Robbie Williams has also suffered depression. He describes how he stopped going out socially. ‘I’d lost the cog to socialize. As soon I got off stage I’d get in the tour coach, go back to my bedroom and pull the duvet over my eyes.’ And if you’re living with someone with depression, you’ll know how hard it is. People commonly describe the effect of living with a depressed person as feeling like all the energy has been sucked out of the room. 


Physical changes 

Depression changes how we think, feel and act – it’s also linked with changes in brain chemistry. When we’re depressed we experience an increase in stress hormones and depletion of the chemical messengers in the brain that control mood. This can lead us on a downward spiral. Drugs for depression address many of the chemical problems associated with depression. 


A downward spiral 

If you think negative thoughts, you start feeling low. One negative thought leads to another, so your thoughts spiral down. And when you’re depressed you stop doing things. For example, you might stop going out or doing the things you enjoy. The less you do, the worse you feel, the less you do, and so on. And depression can leave an emotional imprint – if you’ve had one episode of depression you are more likely to have another. But learning to manage your thoughts and behaviour can help reverse the downward cycle of depression – not least by allowing your brain chemistry to recover. 


Women more prone to depression 

Figures suggest women are two to three times more likely to suffer depression than men. This is probably down to a combination of biology, psychology and social factors. Former Financial Times  columnist Alison Pearson, who herself suffers from depression, has spoken about the ‘curse of my generation’. Depression in women brought on by the stresses of juggling work, the demands of a young family, and the care of aging parents. What she describes as the ‘price for Having it All’. ‘Is it women who are mad, or is it the society we live in?’ she asks. Having a baby can also trigger depression. Peri-natal depression (depression during and after pregnancy) affects about 13% of pregnant women and new mothers, and is thought to be caused by a mix of hormonal changes and social factors. There again, men don’t have it that good either. Men are less likely to seek help for depression and – according to some studies – doctors less likely to suspect it. And men are a higher suicide risk, especially elderly men. 


Why me? 

‘The final straw’, ‘the thing that tipped me over the edge’ – depression can be activated by a build up of stress or life events. Major life changes such as losing someone we love, having a baby, losing our job, getting into debt – even winning the lottery – can tip people into depression. But why are some of us more prone to depression, while others manage to bounce back from difficult situations relatively unscathed? Depression can run in families – it can be in your genes. But vulnerability to depression can also arise from beliefs about yourself learnt during childhood. If you come to believe that you are ‘bad’ or ‘unlovable’, any criticism or rejection later on in life may activate these beliefs, causing you to feel depressed. 

‘You’ve made a start by acknowledging your problem. Overcoming depression isn’t quick or easy, but by understanding more about how it works, you’ve taken the first step.’ 

Having controlling parents or carers who expect you always to achieve high standards, or lash out or show little affection, can also make you more prone to depression. Some researchers believe certain forms of depression are like grief. If you’ve never felt loved or wanted by your parents or partner, or lose your mother before adolescence, you may be more vulnerable to depression. Depression can also be triggered by social isolation or lack of a role in society. Or by physical or mental illness. If you suffer anxiety or low self-esteem, you may be more prone to depression. 


What can I do about it? 

You’ve made a start by acknowledging your problem. Overcoming depression isn’t quick or easy, but by understanding more about how it works, you’ve taken the first step. As much as depression can make things feel hopeless, it is possible for you to learn to take back control of your thoughts and behavior.  


Next steps 

You can learn more about Togetherall by reading our website or registering on the platform to connect with others who understand, or take courses to help with anxiety or depression. Connect with your doctor to find out more about you, your mood and what the next steps are.