The Mail Online – January 18 2011
When I was in my early 20s, I suffered from suicidal despair. I cried for days, sobbed in the street, lost all my self-respect.
I won a prestigious scholarship to America to study literature for two years in Williamsburg, Virginia, and I became so desperately lonely that I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I was found outside my apartment by my flatmate and rushed to hospital, where they pumped out my stomach.
I’d always been a depressive, morbid character and suffered from panic attacks. I’d had a very difficult childhood, with a violent father who was addicted to powerful tranquillisers and attacked my mother and me.
Somewhere inside, I knew there was more to life than this. I tried softly-softly therapies such as psychiatry, ‘stress’ management and counselling. They promised to protect me from problems, but all they did was make me feel more helpless.
I could not bear to take antidepressants or tranquillisers because I had seen my father’s character changed by his addiction to them.
But I wasn’t getting better. During one panic attack, I ended up shutting myself in a phone box to ring for help, but I was shaking so badly I couldn’t dial the numbers.
For most of a decade I floundered, working through research, training and academic degrees in search of a magic mindset to make me happy and self-reliant. (I eventually ended up at the University of East Anglia as a research fellow investigating stress.)
Then I turned my research in a different direction, looking instead at what made people succeed in difficult or distressing circumstances. I studied sports psychology. I looked at the ancient character training used by the Roman army.
The secret, I learnt, was to develop resilience in the face of adversity; to face the problem and be deeply changed by that experience. I came to realise our modern approach to depression and despair often makes the problem worse.
We live in an unusually protective, safety-conscious society that thinks the way to help the weak and vulnerable is to nurse them like infants and prevent them from feeling bad. But look at the number of adults who are suffering from depression and anxiety today and ask yourself: softly-softly — is it helping or harming?
Today, one in three GP patient appointments involves a patient reporting depression. More than six million people in Britain regularly take antidepressants.
A study published just last week found two-thirds of women in England and Wales have suffered mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
‘Being labelled as depressed is not a cure.
It might actually demoralise you and prolong
the whole bitter episode’
Depression is a pandemic, so it must have an underlying cause. I suggest it’s this: we have come to see negative emotions as an inconvenience or an illness. And our modern therapy culture is far too ready to give people labels for their distress — labels that make them feel mentally abnormal and unable to help themselves out of their troubles.
Many people believe they suffer from ‘depression’ or ‘clinical depression’ simply because they are grieving over one of life’s maulings, don’t know what to do to feel better and think it might help if they had a label for their bad feelings.
The label acts like a baby’s dummy or the security blanket of Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus in the Peanuts cartoon — he sucks his thumb and holds it to his ear in times of trouble, though it doesn’t actually serve any useful purpose.
This label is not a cure. It might actually demoralise you and prolong the whole bitter episode.
Once patients are officially labelled ‘depressed’, it tends to sap what little energy they have left to get off their bottoms and set about changing their outlook on life.
Poet John Keats described depression as the ‘drowsy numbness that pains the sense’. It is not only disastrous to life, but dangerous to health. It shouldn’t be mollified with tea and sympathy, but faced down and defeated.
I had such an experience when I was young. I was starting out as a writer, living with my parents, and suffering from panic attacks that were becoming more and more distressing. My habit had been to try to escape the symptoms by surrounding myself with friends and keeping busy. But nights were terrifying spirals and I feared for my sanity.
One evening I decided I couldn’t outrun this any more: I was too exhausted. I’d turn and face the monster. So I went to my room, lay down, folded my arms and waited for the worst.
But suddenly, instead of terror, I felt absolute peace. I went downstairs and looked at my violent, drug-addicted father watching a film on television — On The Waterfront. I was overwhelmed with love and pity for my father, admiration for the film, gratitude for our tiny council house, the lamp on the television, the world I lived in. Everything suddenly made sense. I never suffered from panic attacks again.
Another term commonly applied to depressed people is that they are ‘traumatised’ by some terrible experience. We hear it all the time — schoolchildren have seen an accident in the playground and are therefore ‘traumatised’.
Viewers can apparently even be ‘traumatised’ by watching a particularly challenging episode of EastEnders. But well-conducted studies show that this label, too, can cause far more harm than good. For example, post-traumatic stress counselling can make people feel much worse after they have encountered something shocking.
It can convince them that their reactions are abnormal and a sign of mental illness, causing further anxiety, helplessness and disease.
In fact, negative emotions that go by the name of ‘stress’ can be bountifully positive.
A number of Nobel Prize-winning scientists have been studying what are technically known as ‘complex systems’. Examples of complex systems include piles of sand, pans of simmering water, the money markets and insect swarms.
At the highest point of tension and on the very edge of chaos, they ‘change gear’ and spontaneously produce order.
For example, when a pan of water is put on to boil, all the water molecules behave more and more randomly and chaotically until suddenly they all organise themselves into a hexagonal pattern of heat convection and then simmer. From the very edge of chaos emerges order.
‘Nothing to do with me,’ you might think. Except that one of the complex systems under study is the human brain, and whether it responds to tension in the same way. Undergoing tension and resolution might be crucial to its vital work.
The nervousness that our stress-managed age has come to fear and avoid might actually be part of a complex process designed to upgrade our abilities, and beat depression and despair.
‘If we are numbed or coddled, we are denied these life-changing breakthroughs’
When we face a threat or challenge, the body goes into the complex ‘fight-or-flight response’.
Stress management people are fond of telling us that this is a ‘very primitive’ threat mechanism — one that is suitable for fighting sabre-tooth tigers, but inappropriate for our modern lives.
The mechanism is, in fact, highly sophisticated. Scientists have revealed that it triggers a chain of hormonal and neurological reactions which mean that the brain, at the very height of a crisis that threatens to disintegrate us, can suddenly convulse its powers and produce a life-changing revelation.
This miraculous process, which in part is literally a carefully controlled ‘rush of blood’, is what rescued me when I was young and suffering from crippling anxiety.
The brain changes gear when we face threats and challenges. It has to. It is designed to help us survive and learn, to produce brilliant ideas when we’re in the middle of bad experiences. If we are numbed or coddled, we are denied these life-changing breakthroughs — the sudden moments of calm, clarity and visionary joy that occur at the very climax of a personal crisis.
So if you have been ‘diagnosed’, don’t just sit there and succumb. Your brain has untapped powers of recovery just lying there, waiting to help you survive and grow, waiting for you to say: ‘Blast all this. I’m going to get better.’