What exactly is depression and why do so many have it?

Imagine you were driving a car for the first time. You’ve been to driving school, so you know the rules of the road. As you get behind the wheel, you see lots of different indicators on the dashboard, each with their own funny symbol. You don’t know what they mean, but that’s okay, you think. You’ll figure it out as you go along.

As you’re driving, an hour or two passes, and a red indicator light starts to flash on the dashboard. You don’t know what it means, so you keep on driving. After all, you don’t feel that anything is wrong.

Before long, smoke comes out of your engine and you’re unable to keep driving. You stop and open the bonnet. Steam is coming out of the engine. This tells you clearly that something is wrong. You decide to rest a while and let the engine cool down.

When it has sufficiently cooled down, you start driving again. Before long, the same indicator starts flashing again. If you keep ignoring it, the same thing will happen. Smoke will start coming out of the engine and you won’t be able to keep driving.

This is depression.

Depression is a sign that how you’ve been living your life so far isn’t working. Depression forces you to stop and rest because smoke is coming out of your engine. It happens because you’ve ignored the warning signs, the indicators on your dashboard, which are our emotions.

Driving school is like the education system. It teaches us how to drive on the road, how to give way to others, how to overtake. It teaches us how to succeed at life.

But driving school doesn’t teach us about our car. Each car is unique, although there are similarities. Likewise, school doesn’t teach us about how to live life, how to read our emotions and understand what they are telling us.

So we ignore this pesky flashing indicator, this feeling that nags at us. It is useless, we think, so we ignore them to our detriment.

Failing to understand our emotions and take steps to address them, instead choosing to ignore them and keep pressing — that’s what causes depression.

That answers the first part of the question. As for the second part, why do so many have it?

It has partly to do with the advent of technology. The younger generation today have grown up glued to their mobile phones and computer screens. That is how they interact with the world. It’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that young people today don’t know much about social interactions. They don’t get enough practice.

As a result, people grow up today lacking the ability to read emotions — both others and their own.

I grew up in the 80s, glued to my Nintendo, and later Sega, PlayStation, mobile phone. I too lacked social skills. I too suffered depression… until I learnt to understand and manage my emotions.

As a result my engine is permanently damaged from ignoring the warning signs for too long. I have to be very careful now not to let it overheat, or I will be out of commission for weeks. But it works. I can still drive. I can still live happily provided I take good care of my mental and emotional health.

Coming back to the car.

You know after a few bad experiences that a red flashing indicator means something is wrong with the car. You know that if you were to ignore it and press on, smoke would start pouring from your engine. But you still don’t know what the indicator means. You have to try to find out.

You stop the car, and top up the battery water. The indicator continues to flash.

You top up the wiper water. The indicator continues to flash.

You try various means and eventually, you top up the engine oil. The indicator stops flashing.

Now you know.

Through trial and error, you’ve figured out that the red flashing indicator means that your engine oil level is low, and as a result your engine overheats.

By topping up the engine oil, you address the root problem. You continue driving and the engine no longer overheats.

Likewise, you have entered depression several times and recognize a particular feeling that precedes the depressive episode. You don’t know what the feeling is and what you can do.

So you experiment.

Is the feeling boredom? Do you feel this way because you perceive a lack of sufficient challenge in life? You try learning a new skill. The feeling remains.

Is the feeling sadness? Do you feel this way because you perceive the loss of a relationship? You try to repair broken relationships. The feeling remains.

Is the feeling anger? Do you feel this way because you perceive someone has done something unfair to you or someone you love? You get even with someone instead of suppressing it and trying to forgive.

The feeling disappears.

Aha! The feeling is called anger, and the way to resolve it is to get even, you learn. as you do this, you realise that you no longer fall into depression because of anger.

You’ve learned to name your feelings, understand what they are telling you, and take steps to resolve them and their causes.

This is a life skill, and one that many need to learn if they are to manage their depression. Medication suppresses the symptoms, but do not address the root cause — the inability to manage our emotions.

It is not easy to learn, and involves failing many times. Many do not want to learn it because it involves failing many times.

That is why so many people have depression.

This first appeared in Quora

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