One of the common things people tell me about depression is that one day they are feeling fine, on top of the world even, and the next day they feel very low. Feeling depressed often seems to come right after feeling good.
People are often mystified as to why this happens. It seems to make no sense. Why do you feel so low right after feeling so good?
Life cycles are everywhere
It may surprise you to learn that cycles are an everyday part of life. The sleep cycle is a classic example of an everyday cycle.
If you are like me, then when you first wake up, you will start in a half and half state, being both awake and asleep. You may then find your energy rising through the morning, followed by a post lunch slump. Rising into the evening, and then waning again, until the urge to sleep becomes so strong you go to bed.
The Gestalt tradition also has the idea that life happens in cycles. It uses the idea of a wave to represent this, very much like the waves you can see on the seashore.
Imagine you are waiting to go into an interview. As the moment approaches when you will be called in, your energy will rise, often as a feeling of anxiety. When you sit down and begin answering questions, you are fully connected and immersed in the interview. Afterwards, your energy will subside, and you may even breathe a "phew" as you walk away. You are now ready for the next wave to begin. Footnote #1
What determines the height of the next wave?
The bottom of the wave. The deeper this part, the greater the next wave will be.
You can see this on the seashore. You can tell how big the next wave will be, by how much the water recedes in front of the upcoming wave.
To live a rich full life we need both. We need times when we are fully immersed, and we need times when we are fully disengaged.
What happens if the waves all come together?
If you watch waves on the seashore, you will notice they come in pretty regularly, and are fairly evenly spaced. On the odd occasion, you will get two waves coming very close together, one just behind the other.
The interesting part is what happens afterwards...
There is a longer than usual wait for the next wave, and the sea in between is much calmer than normal, almost flat even.
This flatness is very much like the description people give me of their depression. People will often talk about a lack of energy, and a lack of interest. Often we think about depression in terms of how these positive emotions are lacking or subdued. However, there is also often a reduction in more negative emotions such as anger and sadness.
The person seems to be describing an emotional becalming, which very much reminds me of this part of an epic poem,
Day after day, day after day,
Source The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
How you can use this idea to explain sudden bouts of depression
A sustained period of high energy and high emotion is like stacking the waves too close together. Eventually, there has to be a period of flatness before a new wave can start.
This goes for high positive and high negative emotions - they both make big waves!
You could also use this idea of 'stacking waves' to understand burn out.
What strategies can help?
The people I see who suffer from bouts of being depressed talk about 2 things they do.
A worry you might have is that if you allow yourself to "wallow" in it, it might suck you down and you will never escape from your depression.
This is about knowing yourself, and whether it is safe for you to use this strategy, or whether you will need to use some other method to pull you out.
Remember, the people I see are within a supportive environment, where they can explore different coping strategies. If they get stuck we can always explore other ways of coping, or whether they need to access some more help.
title image by Laszlo Honti