It goes without saying that nobody wants to walk around feeling sad every day, but when we experience feelings of depression we may want to understand our mental health emotions rather than try to immediately extinguish them. What we see today, however, are the many drugs and other approaches designed to quickly mask and efficiently rid us of sad feelings, often without ever making any attempts to understand why these feelings were experienced in the first place? Using a relatable example, you could simply turn up the radio in your car when your muffler becomes noisy, but isn’t a better approach to examine why your car is making the noise, and what things you can do to fix the noise and prevent damage to your car? Similarly, when we take a medication that provides a brief respite from our sad feelings, we gain immediate relief (no more car noise), but we do not learn what caused our feelings of sadness, nor how to prevent the feelings from coming on again the next day.
Quick fixes are not long-term solutions
We live in a world of immediate gratification, so it makes sense that we are attracted to quick fixes when it comes to our mental health. Specific to our mood state, it is very normal to experience fluctuations — including feelings of sadness. Delving deeper, we have a very unique set-up as humans where our emotional states directly reflect our human experiences — for better or for worse. So when you feel those tears of joy watching your child succeed, the positive emotions are reflective of the wonderful experience. Similarly, if you experience sadness as a result of a death, job loss, or divorce, the depression matches the experience.
What is unique about experiencing depression is that our sad feelings are telling us to slow down and allow the feelings to drive our next moves. If we have lost a close friend, sadness and reflection allow us to properly cope. If we have recently lost a job or experienced a divorce, our feelings of sadness can help us learn from what just happened, and better prepare for our next job and/or romantic partner. If we feel sad because we lost too much money betting on sports games, the depression experienced can prompt us to better manage our money in the future, and steer clear of risky sports betting.
If we take the same examples just discussed, but we use a drug to snuff out our depressed feelings, an argument can be made that we do not learn from the experience, nor do we gain important insight how to make better choices in the future. The drugs provide the quick fix, similar to how turning up the radio makes the loud sound go away. But if we do not learn from what just happened, why would we think we have solved the problem? While it is true that in some situations a quick fix may be harmless and beneficial (i.e. taking an aspirin for a minor headache), but if you regularly experience depression isn’t it better to play the long-game and gain a better understanding of why you find yourself in your current mental state?
An exception for crisis situations
It should be noted that when we are in emergency situations, sometimes a quick fix makes a lot of sense in order to calm the situation long enough to develop better future plans of treatment. In some cases people need to be calmed to protect themselves and others, and drugs are often used in these situations. But ask yourself how many times your depression is a result of an emergency crisis needing immediate attention, versus an ongoing period of sadness where examining long-term solutions to ward off future depression make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, whether due to rampant drug advertising or our general expectations of quick fixes, too many times we opt for the fastest relief (regardless of potential risk) in exchange of listening to our body, thinking about what changes need to be made, and developing plans for attaining the resources necessary for a better future.
While we often frame depression as a negative burden on life, we might want to challenge our thinking and better appreciate that our depression is a built-in feature that helps us successfully navigate the world around us. When we feel sad, we might benefit by tuning in to why we feel sad, and the factors that have contributed to our mood state. When we learn what needs fixed, only then can we direct our focus toward future change and the greater likelihood for happier emotions. No, depression isn’t a “bug,” but instead a useful tool prompting us to continually revisit our thinking and ways in which we interact with the people and world around us.