Our brain builds the images we see, and to do so it uses emotional colours. It structures not only our vision but also our thoughts, our beliefs, and our vision of the world.
Just like a pair of coloured glasses, our emotions will colour our hearing, our vision, our smell – If we are happy, the glasses will be pink or variegated and we will want to put on cheerful music, to think of good memories or of projects that animate us. Our resources will then be easily accessible.
This is also true for other emotions. Sadness tells us that we have lost something important to us, something we love, and we are going, with our smoked glasses, to see what we have lost and what we are missing for today and to move forward tomorrow.
Depression is not sadness. Rather, it is a struggle against suffering, sadness, pain, an ordeal that we cannot understand or accept.
Our brain will soak up brown, guilt, shame and we will tend to devalue ourselves, to criticise ourselves because we are not what we want to be. We are going to see ‘what’s wrong with me’ until we sometimes judge ourselves or judge that our life is ‘void’.
These thoughts are not more realistic than the others, but an emotional loop is created which will strengthen them. When we add to the dark, brown glasses, the light gradually goes out and the colours disappear, fade.
When we are depressed, it is all of our sensoriality that is diminished. The fragrances fade, the Proust madeleines lose their evocative taste and the others begin to irritate us.
Everything that brought us pleasure is washed out. The idea that life sucks becomes flesh and bones.
Unfortunately, a second loop will be able to set up. Our desires crumbling, we will lose the motivation to do what we like. Since roses are dull, why garden? Since we no longer feel the warmth of the people we love, why call them? Shame whispers to us that they will not understand, and this is sometimes true. How to understand that the world has changed when everything is like yesterday? The isolation, which is linked to depression, increases slowly.
This type of reaction is part of life, and we all, sometimes several times a year, have moments of depression. Science tells us that you should see a doctor when this period lasts more than a fortnight. And it’s always a good idea if in doubt to move away from a somatic origin and start to talk about our suffering. But we all really need to talk about depression, to understand it better.
To help another to get out of the spiral is to help oneself; directly because compassion is beneficial to physical health (it boosts immunity and it rejuvenates) and psychological (it offsets us from our problems and activates positive emotions) but also indirectly because the person we help today may help us tomorrow.
So how do we find our colours?
When we are depressed, following our desires cannot work. It’s not our fault, it’s just that there is no longer any desire. What I offer to my clients (an adapted form of behavioural activation, scientifically validated protocol) is:
- Make a list of what you would have done if you were in a good mood. Imagine when you were well and you were on vacation, for example, what you would have liked to do. Try to find a maximum of sensory activities by scanning the five senses. For example, hearing: what do you like to listen to? Classical music? In this case the activity can be to take five minutes to fully listen to a piece of music.
- Put a difficulty score for each activity from 1 (very easy) to 10 (very difficult)
- If an activity is too difficult (more than 5 or 6, out of 10); try to cut it out. For example, painting. Maybe your brushes are in the attic, and you don’t know what to draw. You can do a first activity to get the painting down. Second, choose a drawing idea on the internet. A third doodling to tame the painting.
- Choose only one activity from the list, which seems easily achievable, given the context, the energy of the day.
- When you have chosen your activity, do not let it go. If you don’t do it today, it will be tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. If after three days you have not done it, it is because you have chosen something too hard. Always start with the easiest.
- When you have successfully done a pleasurable activity take the time to give yourself positive feedback (‘Bravo! I succeeded, I advance.’). It is certainly not a miracle, but it is like physiotherapy, we advance one day at a time. You may not have enjoyed yourself. With the physiotherapist it can be painful while being effective. The colours will sometimes take time to return but they will return.
- The nicer you are with yourself, the quicker the brown will fade. You do not know how? Imagine talking to your favourite animal. Use the same tone of voice. Yes, we have the right to be nice to ourselves.
- Choose the next activity.
So it remains for me to express my compassion to you if you are depressed. We all know what it’s like to be depressed. You are not alone. One in four people will experience a form of mental illness in their lifetime. It is then often beneficial to see a psychotherapist.
Episodes of depression are part of the puzzle of life. I know this is hard, so please, be patient with yourself, and seek the courage to take a small step every day. Things will get better sooner than you think.
Dr Isabelle Leboeuf is a psychologist and psychotherapist. In her practice she integrates hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and compassion-focused therapy.