The word 'depression’ is used to refer to a wide range of moods and behaviours from those linked with the normal sadness of life to suicidal despair. However, clinical depression is distinguished from normal grief and sadness by its severity, duration or persistence, and effects on day to day functioning. Ten to twenty percent of the population experience serious depressive episodes at some point in their lives. Depression is generally considered to be a chemical imbalance that creates real deep psychic pain over which the person has no control and treatment is generally by medication.
However, my experience has taught me that depression causes chemical imbalances rather than the other way around and that self-help techniques aimed at dealing with the real cause of depression can bring peace and healing. These techniques are based on sound principles of emotion and trauma from the fields of psychology, hypnotherapy and various somatic psychotherapies.
Psychologists’ experiments have repeatedly shown that it is impossible to detect a physiological difference between a strong positive emotion and a strong negative one. From this it has been concluded that emotions are bodily sensations to which we attach a mental interpretation according to the context in which they occur. Because most psychotherapies involve interpretation and our minds can deliver complicated interpretations ad infinitum, working with body sensations is a more direct, simple and effective way to heal our difficulties.
You have probably noticed that when mild feelings occur, sensations arise to a gentle peak intensity and then dissipate in the same way as happens with other forms of energy, such as sound waves and electromagnetic radiation. However, this doesn’t happen with intense emotions. The reason for this stems from the period before, during and after birth. During this time we were like ‘emotional sponges’ soaking up the feelings around us. Unfortunately our egos couldn’t comprehend what was happening and we consequently developed defences that prevented us feeling the full intensity of the sensations. The energy that could not dissipate then became locked in the musculature of our bodies. Of course, accidents, crime and war may add to this normal load of infant trauma. For existing views on this trapped energy and ways of releasing it, see the work of Wilhelm Reich, the bioenergetics of Alexander Lowen, Janov’s primal therapy, and the Holotropic Breathwork and bodywork of Stan Grof.
Unfortunately, every time our mind associates anything with past trauma, we compulsively repeat the behaviour patterns developed to prevent us from fully feeling it in the first place. No amount of rational thinking and logic can prevent this. Eventually we reach a limit where we have suppressed so many emotions that we suffer the classical symptoms of depression. This may happen through a single painful event such as a marriage break-up, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a career. In this case, it is called reactive depression. If it follows childbirth, an event which triggers our unresolved infant and birth trauma, it is called postnatal depression. However, if there is a slow build-up of many things that we have suppressed over the years, then there is no obvious single cause and it is called major depression or endogenous depression. Finally, bipolar depression occurs when the need to escape the pain and discomfort of normal reality is so great that the psyche uses an immense amount of energy to generate manic periods of unrealistic perceptions such as delusions of grandeur which then collapse back into periods of endogenous depression when the energy runs out.
The more serious forms of depression usually persist or get worse unless we engage in a deep experiential healing process or there are dramatic changes to our life circumstances. Anti-depressants are not a cure. They simply suppress the bothersome emotions for us, and in so doing, often take away our ability to feel joy or sorrow, so life becomes meaningless.
Instead of trying to talk ourselves out of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that bother us, we need to release the trapped body sensations from our early life which are being triggered by events in our lives today but which are actually not appropriate to today’s events. When this happens, the mental defences (conscious and unconscious attitudes and beliefs) fall away because there is no longer a bad feeling to avoid.
To release blocked feelings, we need to briefly feel their full intensity. This is possible because an intense brief pain is much more bearable than a slightly less intense chronic or intermittent pain (in fact, it’s the latter rather than the former that is the cause of re-traumatisation). We can develop the trust to do this by practising with a small discomfort first, provided we are not already experiencing a bad feeling or numb. In this case, we have no option but to work with the existing feeling. If this is too uncomfortable or overwhelming, we need to get help from someone experienced in this method.
Think of a minor issue that bothers you. Notice the feeling. Locate it in your body. Notice what shape, size and intensity it is. If you are unaware of a feeling, use the hypnotic technique called revivification (Hypnotherapists have learned that if you vividly imagine something, the mind does not know the difference between what is vividly imagined and what is real. For example, if you imagine seeing and feeling a piece of lemon in your fingers, holding it to your lips, smelling it, and tasting the sour flavour as you hear yourself sucking it, your saliva is likely to run. To use revivification for this exercise, you must pick a particular occasion when your issue bothered you because you cannot imagine a generalisation and then engage as many of your physical senses as possible in the recall. If a future event is bothering you, make up the details. The mind will make the necessary associations whether it is real or imagined. Now notice the feelings in your body. Where are the sensations? How big are they? What shape are they? How intense are they? It is important to become as fully aware of them as you can.)
Now take a few breaths to circulate some oxygen and carbon dioxide around the body. Oxygen gives you energy and carbon-dioxide helps bring unconscious feelings and thoughts into consciousness. This is the basis of the breathwork therapies. Also, because we block ourselves from experiencing intense emotions by holding our breath, it is important to breathe consciously and continuously.
Now tense up the muscles in the area of the body where you can feel the sensations. If you are feeling numb or aren’t sure where the sensation is, tense up the whole body. Doubt, confusion and numbness are defensive patterns that can be worked with and released in the same way as feelings like fear, grief and anger. Let go, and keep your breathing going afterwards. Notice what has happened. Sensations may have become more obvious, larger or smaller, more or less intense, shifted to another part of the body or dissipated altogether. If you are feeling anything other than complete relaxation, tense up the non-relaxed parts again, remembering to keep breathing. Continue intensifying the energy wherever it moves in your body until it dissipates.
Some people will find this happens on the first or second attempt and others will have to persevere for half an hour or more. Then when your whole body is relaxed, think of the bothersome circumstances again and notice if you are still relaxed. This is the test. If you are not completely relaxed, continue to intensify the body sensations until you can recall the issue and it no longer produces unpleasant feelings.
If you tensed up your whole body because you were not sure where the sensations were and you still cannot feel anything, do it again, harder if you can. The intensity is important. Sometimes people have to do it six times before they feel any sensations. Once you get a sensation, work with that in the way already described.
If you tensed up your body and the sensations didn’t change, do it again, harder if you can. Also remember that you are trying to make them worse. If you hold the intention of ‘getting rid of them’, you delay the process. The paradox is that you have to be willing to accept and experience whatever is there, forever if necessary, and then the release can happen quickly.
Often people experience a sudden warm glow or pleasant tingling. Enjoy it. The energy has moved and you have healed something. Another indication of healing is a sense of deep peace. When a seemingly unbearable feeling explodes into bliss, deep serenity, euphoria or the like, you have experienced an ego death-rebirth (see the work of Stan Grof for more details).
A common obstacle in the above process occurs when a person experiences an intense point of pain they are unwilling or unable to physically intensify even for an instant. The pain might be in a sensitive or physically damaged part of the body. If this occurs, keep your breathing consciously connected and imagine the intensity in the centre of the pain spreading outwards. If you notice that the middle is still more intense, just start spreading it out from the middle again. Persevere. Some people may need to imagine spreading it out to fill the whole of Australia, the planet or the Universe. Sooner or later it will dissipate because, if your mind gives a limited amount of trapped energy permission to move beyond its current boundary, it must get weaker as it gets bigger. Some people notice it weakening as they imagine it expanding. Others notice it suddenly transform into something pleasant when they have been willing to let go and drown in the pain: the necessary attitude that permits healing.
Another obstacle to developing trust in this process can occur if you accidentally pick a big first issue rather than a small one. If this happens, you may feel that the pain is getting so intense it might annihilate you. The more intense it is the more real it feels and this makes it hard to believe that it is just an ‘old feeling’ coming up for release. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when this happens. So, it is best to find a smaller issue to work with initially to develop confidence in the approach.
However, eventually you will need to face the bigger issues, and I know from personal experience, as well as from working with others, that if you can develop enough trust to totally surrender to being swallowed up by the pain, that a very significant breakthrough is likely to occur. This does not mean you should do it alone. It can be extremely beneficial to have assistance from someone who has experienced those horrible places. The fact that they have gone through the process and survived can be very comforting and even necessary to enable us to trust that we can feel these sensations without being destroyed by them.
However, for many people the trapped feelings are not all that bad, and remembering to do the process is a bigger problem. It is easy to get caught up in what is happening and forget that you have this tool at your disposal. The only answer is practice. The more you do it, the more naturally it will come to you. Persevere, and if you have trouble, seek assistance.
Another occasion when we need assistance is when we prefer to talk about our bothersome experiences rather than re-experience them. Talking can be useful if the listener provides the safe space for us to open up further and we experience our feelings more deeply as we speak. However, talking is more often used as a defence against feeling. In this kind of talking, we speak from the mind, rather than from our present experience, and this removes us from feeling intense emotions.
The biggest difficulty occurs if someone feels the process is endless because there is ‘always’ another horrible sensation to release. This is frequently the case with people who suffer from major depression. Even with appropriate help, they can doubt the very real progress they are making. So it is important for the facilitator to record and point out the changes. It also helps enormously if the helper has travelled an equally difficult journey and can say, ‘I know you can do it because I have done it’. In addition when something we are unwilling to face arises in someone we are assisting, we will instinctively steer them away from what they need to experience for their healing. If this is happening, find yourself another mentor for the journey into freedom from depression.
For those who would like further assistance with this technique, personal coaching is available face to face or by telephone consultation from Art of Living Psychology and Hypnotherapy in Melbourne.