At one of my talks in South Africa last week (click here to read my ‘contemplative travel blog’ from the trip), I shared a description of depression that had never occurred to me before yet as someone who struggled with it throughout my teenage and at times adult years, had the ring of truth…
|Imagine an electric generator. designed to run on simple gasoline naturally available at any local station. Now imagine that a person who doesn’t know the design of the power source inadvertently puts jet fuel in it. The generator runs hot, but it supplies enough power for everything the person needs. In a relatively short space of time, the safety mechanism in the generator switches it off so the natural cooling mechanism can protect the engine.
Now imagine that this person keeps the generator running on jet fuel day and night, restarting the motor as often as possible, essentially rendering the cooling mechanism redundant.
There would be one of two outcomes. On the one hand, the generator might shut itself down semi-permanently, refusing all attempts to get it started until the system was able to fully reset and return to the factory settings. On the other hand, the person might somehow find a way to override the cooling system and keep the generator running, right up until the point where the engine itself burns out and needs repair or even replacement.
This echoes the typical experience of anxiety and depression. A person experiences anxiety over an extended period of time, generally starting with occasional bouts of worry but often building up to full blown panic attacks. As the science has been explained to me, the constant production of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine in the brain during insecure, anxious thinking leads to the continual release of adrenaline in the body.
At first, the brain releases GABA and serotonin during sleep and other “down times”, balancing out the system and returning it to it’s natural balance of chemicals. But over time, the body struggles to keep up with the constant demand for adrenaline and one of two things happens.
On the one hand, the brain and body might “shut down” the system until it can reset, a condition the person would experience as depression; on the other, the constant adrenaline production can lead to headaches, nausea, high blood pressure and in extreme cases heart attacks and strokes.
The good news is that the mind-body system is remarkably resilient. Even after the extremes of depression and anxiety related symptoms, the system can reset, our bodies can recharge, and our natural energy can return. This is what happened to me after a seven year cycle of anxiety and depression that lasted throughout my adolescence.
The even better news, as I’ve discovered more recently, is that as people gain a deeper understanding of thought as the source of anxiety and learn to rest more deeply in the unconditioned mind – what the Buddhists call “the ultimate medicine” – they stop pouring so much “jet fuel” into the system and experience more and more of a natural energy flow in their body and throughout their lives.
With all my love,