Making the Mental Breakthrough that Depression is Rooted in Fear, Not Sadness

If you think as I did a couple years ago, you probably assume that people who struggle with depression must be sad a lot and just need to be cheered up or adopt a more positive attitude. Well, as I came to discover, that notion is dead wrong.

In the fall of 2014, I came to a sobering realization: I was depressed.

Now depression was something I was familiar with because both my parents (particularly my mother) suffered from depression on and off throughout my childhood—in fact I believe my mother, though she was never diagnosed as such, trended towards being bipolar (or as she would have called it back in the day, manic-depressive). Both her parents were unquestionably bipolar, which is one reason why my mother was raised by her grandparents for a number of years in her early life. But me? I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I was the guy who always cheered everyone else up. I often went around proclaiming “trust in God and everything will be alright!” and really believed it. Even when my mother passed away in 2006 due to cancer, I navigated through the whole grieving process fairly well and felt the effects of a good support network in church praying for me. So why, in 2014, was I so depressed?

My exact words to my wife were: “Honey, I feel like my brain is broken.” I was seriously concerned that I had developed bipolar myself, and, since I’m an information junkie, I of course did a bunch of research on the topic. Eventually I came to the conclusion that, no, I wasn’t bipolar. I was simply struggling with depression. The reason I knew something was seriously off is because my daily reactions were all over the map. Some days I’d feel relatively normal, other days I would have panic attacks or erupt in anger over things that, in the objective part of my conscious mind, I knew just weren’t that big of a deal. My relationship with my wife was faltering, my relationship with God was suffering…it just felt like the walls were closing in on me and I had no idea why.

In the past, during my more “charismatic” years, I might have subscribed all of this to the devil’s work and concluded I needed deliverance from demons. But I already knew what a demonic attack felt like (in the sense that it usually feels like confusion, fear, or doubt being imposed from without by some entity), and this seemed quite different. In this case, as I stated in my quote above, my brain literally felt like it wasn’t working right, like it was damaged somehow.

What threw me for a loop is I couldn’t figure how “why” I should be depressed. Sure, there were plenty of things in life to be annoyed at here and there (when is there ever not?), but nothing that seemed particularly overwhelming. Certainly, there wasn’t much I could justify feeling “sad” about. Isn’t that why people get depressed? They just mope around because they’re so sad? I didn’t have anything to be sad about. In fact, I should be Happy! Excited! The Joy of the Lord is my Strength! etc.

Coming to grips with mental illness

My real breakthrough came as I began to study mindfulness & meditation (subjects I was already becoming increasingly interested in) alongside my continued research of depression and mental illness. I first had to make space in my worldview that mental illness is even a thing—I was raised to believe mental illness was simply due to a lack of faith and demonic oppression and only required spiritual healing from God. I didn’t know that it was as real and difficult a problem to struggle with as having a lame leg or going blind in one eye.

My mindfulness research taught me that yes, it’s entirely possible to have a broken brain (for a variety of possible reasons). Encouragingly, it’s entirely possible to fix or largely alleviate the issues through self-education/self-awareness on how the brain is supposed to work, combined with meditation techniques which are scientifically-proven to help the brain rebuild its neural network and strengthen the connections between different parts of the brain so that normal function can return.

One of the most important things I learned, which really helped me understand what I was going through, is that the underlying trigger for depression (at least, the kind of depression I suffered with) has far less to do with “sadness” or “sorrow” and much more to do with a chronic state of anxiety laced with fear. In a sense, my subconscious felt “unsafe”. I was constantly in fight-or-flight mode. Depression basically tried to turn everyone and everything in life into the “enemy”. My marriage is unsafe. My job is unsafe. My money is unsafe. My friends are unsafe (or “I don’t have any friends”). My lifestyle is unsafe. I have to change something. I have to “get away” or “hide” or do something (anything!) other than what’s happening right now.

Now I probably couldn’t have articulated any of these feelings to you at the time, which is why depression is such a difficult thing to deal with. It’s depressing just to feel depressed, to feel like everything is simply awful but not understand why or know what to do differently.

Mindfulness gave me a path forward

As I began to practice mindfulness, it was like scales started falling from my eyes. I developed the ability to observe my fear-based thinking and my lack of balance. I started to build up an immunity to that familiar sense of panic that would leave all rational thought by the wayside. A genuine sense of peace and well-being increasingly started to feel like my new “normal” and times of sliding back into depression would feel “abnormal” (rather than the other way around). My times of meditation along with researching the inner workings of the brain provided a new preception of stability in my life as the anxiety slowly became less and less acute.

In short, in order to be effective against depression and find healing in my relationship with God and others, I had to make the mental breakthrough that (my) depression is rooted in physical anxiety/fear and neural misfirings in the brain, not sadness over real-world misfortune—although a long string of difficult circumstances and emotionally-taxing events can definitely introduce mental patterns that, over time, cause you to be susceptible to depression.

It seems so counterintuitive, but it’s true: you can have a “great” life with all sorts of fun things happening and still be depressed. That’s why it’s often so damaging when well-meaning people in your life make comments like “oh, cheer up, everything’s going to be fine” or “you just need to adopt a better attitude” or “don’t worry, just trust in the Lord!” This is the reason why I’ve written this article: if you’re struggling with depression or know someone who is, simply understanding the underlying causes of depression and how it really works could be the start of a major breakthrough. It’s important to know there may be light at the end of the tunnel without resorting to drastic measures like drug-based therapy.

A book I highly recommend as a resource for this topic is Mindsight by Dr. Daniel Siegel (read my book review here). It really helped me in my recovery process, and I hope it helps you as well.

Jared White