A recent story, “Everywhere and Nowhere” in the New Yorker by Donald Antrim tells a harrowing and honest account of the author’s life-long journey battling depression and suicidal thoughts. While many people believe that depression is a flaw in brain chemistry, Antrim’s deeply personal story illuminates how depressive symptoms and suicidal tendencies often stem from childhood trauma.
Rates of major depression are rising. And the CDC recently reported that suicide rates are steadily increasing. Most of us are taught that depression is a flaw in genetics and/or brain chemistry. But another very important and hopeful way to understand depression is through a lens based on emotion and trauma theory.
Life experiences, especially adverse ones, ignite a myriad of emotions in the brain. Chronically burying emotions leads to depression and many other symptoms of mental illness. Reversing the trend in depression and suicide begins with making sure all people receive a basic education in emotions and how they affect our biology and physiology.
How the mind and body handles emotions, especially under stressful life events, traumas, and conflicts holds a key for prevention and recovery of depression, anxiety, and more. Emotion education holds a missing piece to solving the mental health crisis in our society.
Alexander, who had escaped a war-torn country, was depressed and suicidal when I first met him. He had thoughts of ending his life because of the seemingly inescapable pain he felt. Traumatic events, be they from war, childhood, or any event that overwhelms the capacity to cope, involve core emotions, like fear, anger, and sadness.
When emotions cannot be processed, it throws the mind and body into a state of imbalance called dysregulation. In our society, symptoms of dysregulation are given various labels and diagnoses like depression, suicidality, generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, and more.
At the root, these diagnoses have a common cause: blocked and buried emotions that ultimately give way to the unbearable sense of being disconnected from one’s self.
Releasing Buried Emotions Helps Nervous System Regulate
I helped Alexander recover by teaching him about emotions, and then helping him safely release the terror, anger, and sadness that had been trapped inside his body for many years. Releasing buried emotions would allow his nervous system to regulate.
“Alex,” I guided, “Can you tune inside and name the emotion you sense as you share this memory of seeing a soldier shoot a civilian?”
“It is terror!” Alex said.
Making sure he but had one foot firmly grounded in the present and that he felt connected to me as he was simultaneously remembering past events, I asked, “What sensations are you experiencing now that let you know you feel terror?”
“I am trembling all over but especially in my legs,” he said.
Trembling is a hallmark of fear. The job of fear is to send impulses throughout the body that mobilize us for survival actions, like running.
I guided Alex: “Drop the storyline in your head, drop the emotions, and just stay with the trembling with a stance of curiosity and compassion towards yourself.” I gently added, “Keep breathing deeply into your belly to help you move through it. The trembling will stop when all that pent-up energy is released. Stay with it.”
We sat together as Alex focused inward. After several minutes, his body calmed and the trembling quieted. The energy from the terror that had been trapped in his body, and which caused him unimaginable distress, had released.
Emotions in Mind Lead to Body Ailments
Emotions, the body, energy…growing up in New York City in the 1970s I thought these were woo-woo “new age” unscientific ideas. Turns out I was wrong. Years ago, in anatomy class, I saw with my own eyes as I dissected my cadaver that the vagus nerve, also called the 10th cranial nerve, extends from inside the brain down the spinal cord with branches to the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and more.
That is why and how emotions in the mind lead to ailments in the body, like stomach aches or back pain. But it wasn’t until 2004, when I was in training to become a trauma and emotion-centered experiential psychotherapist, that I learned how to help people (and myself) release emotions through paying attention to the body.
Alex’s depression lifted because we liberated the underlying emotions that were affecting his brain and body. While the emotions from that time were too much for Alex to bear alone, now with my help, he could safely process them. With his nervous system regulated, the suicidal thoughts stopped.
In our society, no one teaches us what emotions are, let alone how to use them safely and skillfully. We learn how to avoid our emotions using a myriad of defenses such as addictions, over-working, over-eating, under-eating, isolating ourselves, ruminating, and many others.
Chronic reliance on avoidance eventually leads to a sense of being disconnected both from our authentic Self and others, which exacerbates suffering. The mind, to spare it from further pain, has the capacity to create a feeling that one is perpetually out of one’s body, or dissociating from reality or the present moment.
Experiences like these are often labelled as “depression” because the symptoms are the same: disconnected, deadened, and hopeless.
Recently in my practice, Phil, a 23-year-old highly accomplished young man, came to therapy because he felt depressed and numb. When I explored events in his life, I found out his father had died of a heart attack when he was a teenager. Phil’s dad was a firm believer that a man should always control his emotions and never cry.
Because of this learned belief that it is weak to have emotions, Phil never could grieve his father’s death. He was able to cope by keeping busy with sports and school. But eventually his defenses broke down and he developed symptoms like the depression that brought him to therapy. I suspected that if Phil could grieve his father, he’d feel better and his depression might lift.
I told Phil, “Despite what your father told you, you are not weak for having emotions. All humans have core emotions like sadness, anger, fear, joy and excitement. They happen in response to the environment and they are NOT under our conscious control. All we can control is how we deal with emotions.
When someone we love dies, sadness is the healthy biological response to our loss. We cannot just ‘get over it’ or ‘suck it up’. We cannot think our way through emotions. We must experience emotions on the deepest level, which means feeling them physically until they fully release. That’s how people recover from losses to feel better.”
I helped Phil by guiding him into his body to access his buried grief. As Phil shared the story of his father’s last days, I invited him to slow down and tune into the sensations he felt below the neck. Almost immediately, he started to tear up.
“Just notice the feeling coming up, without judgment. Just welcome it with compassion and curiosity in yourself.” I said.
“My chest is heavy. And I feel pressure behind my eyes,” Phil shared.
“Just stay with what you notice physically. As you feel the wave of emotion, breathe slowly and deeply.” Phil cried as I sat quietly with him, my heart open. After just a few sessions like this, where Phil experienced the emotions he had heretofore buried, Phil felt himself again.
The Challenge of Sensing Emotions Physically
Sensing one’s emotions on a physical level is at first challenging. But with practice, it soon gets easier, like learning a new language or starting a new exercise regimen. There are also skills and techniques anyone can learn that make dealing with emotions more manageable, like breathing, grounding, and connecting to someone else who understands.
Most of all, education on what emotions are and how they work in the mind and body demystifies them. It is the first step to making emotions less scary so we stop avoiding them. And, education undoes damaging myths, like “strong people don’t have emotions” or “only weak people suffer.”
When we understand emotions, our suffering changes from shameful to human. And when we learn to work with our emotions, becoming familiar with how they feel physically, the need to avoid them eases. We stop being hampered and side-lined by the traumas and wounds we have experienced; and we unlock a healing potential to restore a deeply felt calm and authentic connection to our true Self and to others.
(Patient details have been changed for confidentiality).
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Spiegel & Grau
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking