One of the best books I’ve ever read is Lost Connections by Johann Hari. It’s about anxiety and depression, but I think it’s a useful and interesting read for anyone, whether you have ever struggled or not. All of us either will struggle with anxiety or depression at some point, or know someone who does. I’ve written this blog as a taster, I urge anyone to read the full book!
An analogy I relate to and really like… Depression and anxiety are like cover versions of the same song by two bands. Depression is sung by a slow, emotional indie band and anxiety is sung by a fast, screaming punk rock group. The underlying music and lyrics are the same, they have the same core but sound very different!
There are various segments of our lives, some of which we may feel disconnected. When we re-connect with these segments, we feel ourselves and we feel happy.
1. Meaningful work:
Control is a huge part of how we feel. If you have a lot of control over your work, you are much less likely to become depressed or develop severe emotional distress. Finding happiness in your job is about finding meaning, having ideas that are listened to and having some freedom. Humans evolved in participative tribes, ones in which everyone is needed and everyone has a role that is meaningful to them. Most people want to work to feel useful, valued and have purpose. They want to feel they’ve had an impact on others or their community. The humiliation and control of a company may suppress this but it can re-emerge in the right environment.
2. Connecting with People:
When humans lived in tribes, if you became separated from the group, you were in terrible danger and vulnerable to predators. If you were injured or ill nobody would be there to help you. Human instinct is for tribal life. There is also incentive to get along so you don't get thrown out of the tribe. Loneliness often causes anxiety as we feel bad and insecure in isolation.
Feeling lonely is different from simply being alone. We want to be with others who have similar values, who get us. We want to share things that are meaningful to both parties.
When I feel low, I try to do something for someone else. You can almost always make someone else feel a little better. And this in turn makes you feel good. The opposite of stress isn’t calm, that’s the absence of stress. Kindness is the opposite to stress.
3. Meaningful values:
Intrinsic motives are values that are important just for yourself, your passions you find joy in. Extrinsic motives are things you do to impress, to get something in return, such as money, power or sex. These two sets of values exist in all of us, nobody is driven totally by one or the other. However, achieving extrinsic goals has been shown over and over not to improve happiness. Focusing on and achieving intrinsic goals has been shown to significantly make people happier, less depressed and less anxious. Yet our culture and the advertising and media that surround us, means we spend our time chasing the very things that won’t give us happiness - the best grades, a promotion, new car, more clothes, better technology etc. Numerous studies from all over the world, find that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated we become, the more depressed or anxious we will be.
Just as we have shifted from eating food to eating junk food, we have shifted from having meaningful values to having junk values. They don't give us nutrition, instead they fill us with toxins. Junk food is distorting our bodies and junk values are distorting our minds. Junk values mean less meaningful connections with other people, and more focus on their opinions of you.
What people really value as the most important things in life, are family, friends, kindness, honesty, helping others, love and connection. When you ask these two questions: "What do you spend your money on?" and "What do you really value most?", people see a gap between the answers. People earn and spend money on things that are not what matters most.
So why do we crave all this stuff? We’re exposed to about 5000 advertisements a day in billboards, media, logos, TV adverts etc. We’re told that if we buy this product it'll mean more happiness. That we will feel better, more worthy, less inadequate - only if we buy this specific item. To counteract all this we need to consciously nurture our meaningful values, the intrinsic motives that are important to us and that aren’t to gain status or to please others.
4. Childhood Trauma:
The adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) study asks about 10 different categories of awful, traumatic things that can happen to someone when they were a child. For every category of experience you went through, you are much more likely to become depressed as an adult. If you had 6 categories of traumatic events as a child, you were 5 times more likely to become depressed as an adult than somebody who had none. Emotional abuse was more likely to cause depression than any other kind of trauma. Being treated cruelly by your parents was the biggest driver of depression.
Psychological damage doesn't have to be as extreme as childhood violence to severely affect someone. It can also be something that was missing, like constant negativity or dismissal from a caregiver.
It's not just a childhood trauma in itself that causes problems. It's hiding or avoiding it, not telling anyone because you’re ashamed. The lack of acknowledgement and feeling of humiliation plays a big role in depression. Evidence suggests that by reconnecting a person with their childhood trauma and showing them that an outside observer understands, believes and doesn't see it as shameful, you go a long way towards helping to set them free from some of its negative effects.
5. Status and respect:
Our close cousins the baboon are most stressed in two situations - when their status is low or threatened. When a human is depressed, they have high levels of the same stress hormone found in low ranking male baboons. Depression for humans can be partly a submission response, the equivalent of a baboon at the bottom of the hierarchy saying "please leave me alone, you don't have to fight me I'm no threat to you".
Today there are status gaps bigger than any in human history. Not long ago, it used to be that your boss would likely earn 20 times more than the average employee. It's now 300 times more. 8 billionaires own more wealth than the bottom half of the human race. We do have a choice. We can find ways to dismantle hierarchies and create a more equal place where everybody feels they have respect, status and feel valued.
By observing animals in captivity, we see that when they are deprived of their natural habitat they will often develop symptoms that look like depression. Parrots will rip their own feathers out, bears pivot round in circles, elephants grind their tusks. Most humans have a natural sense of something called biophilia which is an innate love for the landscapes in which humans have lived for most of our existence.
In the 1970s, an accidental experiment occurred in a prison. Because of the way the prison was built, half the prisoner cells looked out over rolling farmland and trees, the other half looked out onto bare brick walls. The medical records for these different groups of prisoners who didn't differ in any other way, found that if you were in the group who could see nature, you were 24% less likely to get physically or mentally sick. If we had a medication for which preliminary results showed such efficacy it would be a success in no time. Here is a treatment that has barely any side effects, it can be mostly free, doesn't require a prescription it and has excellent efficacy.
7. A hopeful or secure future:
When someone is depressed they can’t often project into the future. A sign of depression lifting may be when they feel a sense of time expanding again. When they are able to think about where they may be in a month or a year.
Across Canada there were 196 first Nations groups, the term for the native American groups, who were able to survive the European invasion - albeit on reservations. Like in the US, Canadian governments had for many years destroyed their cultures by taking their children away from them and raising them in orphanages, banning their native languages and preventing them from having their traditions. In the 1990s, statistics were looked at for suicide - half the tribes had no suicide at all, while others had extraordinarily high rates. The communities with the highest control over their lives - their traditions, languages, health and school - had the lowest suicide. And the communities with the lowest control had the highest suicide. For people living in the first Nations community with no control over its destiny, it's hard to construct a picture of a secure or stable future for you or your family. You're at the mercy of people who destroyed your people many times before. The loss of a hopeful future was what was driving the suicide rates up in the first Nations communities.
On the flip side, a sense of a positive future, lets you feel positive. If life is bad today, you can think this hurts but it won't last forever.
In 1965 a doctor came up with the idea that low serotonin levels in the brain cause depression. This was just a suggestion on the basis of no evidence or data. It’s since been shown that 95% of serotonin is made in the gut anyway.
In the early 1990s no expert would say that lowering of serotonin causes depression – because there was still no evidence for it. The pharmaceutical companies wanted to sell antidepressants and this story was easy, people believed that antidepressants restore you to a natural state of balanced chemicals in your brain. And the reason why they sometimes “work” (albeit temporarily) is because of the belief that they will, which is a placebo effect.
This claim that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, has made big pharma over 100 billion dollars. The facts are that depression and anxiety have three kinds of causes - biological, psychological and social. The social and psychological causes have been ignored for a long time even though it seems the biological causes don't occur without them. The world health organization (WHO) summarised the evidence well in 2011 when they explained: "Mental health is produced socially. The presence or absence of mental health is above all the social indicator and therefore requires social as well as individual solutions. There are deeper causes of depression so while there is some role for medications we need to stop using them to address issues which are closely related to social problems. We need to move from focusing on chemical imbalances to focusing on power imbalances."
If you are depressed or anxious you're not broken, it’s because some needs are not being met. It's not serotonin, it's society. It's not your brain, it's your pain. It’s not a brain malfunction, it is a signal. It's a signal saying you shouldn't have to live this way, you can find a better way.