Depression: An Existential Vacuum?
What if we do all the “right things” and still feel depressed? Maybe the solution is not medications, or even all the ways we’ve tried to relieve depression—as enormously helpful as these attitudes and actions are. We’ve tried everything. We…
- exercise to activate the serotonin in the brain because being sedentary is a disaster.
- reduce sugar and processed food—and eat more vegetables and fruit.
- sleep 7-8 hours in a dark, cool room and choose early rising over late rising.
- strive for connections: a couple of close friends and a group we resonate with.
- recognize that our consistent thoughts are our reality and that thoughts precede feelings. That gratitude self-talk is magical.
- live in the present moment—not in the regrets of yesterday or fears of tomorrow.
- journal to bring to consciousness old angers, shame, guilt, fears or resentments to be released and then forgiven. * Add today’s gratitude and joys.
- lastly, remember that despair is not only (theologically) a sin, but also a mistake. We cannot know the future.
Despite all we do, we may still have a feeling of emptiness which some try to fill with pleasure (Sigmund Freud) or success/money/power (Alfred Adler). We may try to fill the emptiness by acquiring more stuff or overdoing sex or eating too much. Or we numb the emptiness with drugs or alcohol—or medications.
Years ago, Yogi Krishan Sidhu gave a presentation on depression. Much to my surprise, he said, “Depression is about lack of purpose—and a job is not a purpose.”
Maybe he was on to something. What if one’s depression—which sometimes feels like boredom—is indeed about a lack of purpose, a lack of meaning? Viktor Frankl, the fourth of the great Viennese psychotherapists, called this feeling an “existential vacuum”.
But how does one fill the emptiness? How do we find meaning/purpose? Frankl’s extraordinary book, Man’s Search for Meaning, offers options. The first part of his book recounts his three years in concentration camps. He then goes on to explain his therapy for depression: logotherapy—which focuses on helping people find meaning in their lives, even in the horrific and unavoidable suffering of a concentration camp. He quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
*If you are one of the 30%+ of Americans who have been abused or abandoned in childhood, you likely have negative messages running in your subconscious which can make you more susceptible to depression—and even illness. (The ACE Study) The messages may include 1) the world is not safe and 2) you are not valuable, not good enough. Therapy, especially mind/body work like EFT (tapping) or EMDR, can “neutralize” these subconscious messages so you can experience emotional freedom (and sometimes even physical healing).
Dr. Frankl proposes that one’s meaning is not a general “meaning of life,” but a specific meaning called forth in this moment—anddirected to something or someone other than oneself. He suggests three possibilities:
- Loving another human being or experiencing beauty in nature or art or music. For Brother Lawrence, it was daily loving and serving God.
- Fulfilling a task or doing a deed that only you can do. For Frankl, it was finishing his manuscript. Nelson Mandela, during his 27 years in prison, wrote his autobiography and took a University of London law correspondence course.
- Finding meaning even in unavoidable suffering. The challenge is to give that suffering meaning. A terminally ill person might find meaning in suffering with courage and nobility. Or find meaning in healing broken relationships. The grieving mother who lost her child at the hands of a drunk driver founded MADD. We are grateful to the suffering folks who gave us Alcoholics Anonymous. And Al Anon.
If you’re doing all the “right things” and still feel an emptiness, perhaps your fulfillment is waiting for you in the specific meaning you call forth in this moment, one directed at something or someone other than yourself—a meaning that only you can fulfill.
“What is it that you want to do with the one, wild precious thing called your life?”
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