Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and preeminent writer on neuroscience, has a great story about being at a conference with a gaggle of different hard science people, especially physicists. He realized that he didn’t really know how energy is or should be defined, so he went around asking these folks, whose bread and butter is studying energy. Their somewhat sheepish answers were, “We don’t really know,” followed up by, “Well, it’s the capacity to make stuff happen.”
Energy as “makes stuff happen” is really, really important when we’re talking about depression. It’s not far off the mark to think of depression as primarily a monitor and regulator of energy level. I’ve never been a full-blown Simpsons fan, but I seem to remember Homer working at a desk in a nuclear power plant, monitoring dials. It’s a bit like that, except depression is a super alert Homer, who goes into a hyper-caffeinated mode when the levels started to dip, ringing alarms and rapidly shutting down systems.
Let’s define depression this way: depression is an evolutionarily selected mechanism of the nervous system (brain included), which monitors for activities and attachments which are assessed as “wastes of energy,” as futile, and serves to shut down these “energy-negative” activities/attachments so that our overall system does not either overheat or run out of fuel. Pfew. A simpler definition: depression keeps us from (what feels like) dying by shutting us down when our energy gets far out of whack. In neuroscience terms, depression is attempting to regulate a system (the whole “us”) to keep it from being destroyed by an over- or under-abundance of energy, of the “capacity to do stuff.”
Depression really cares about our energy level, and would rather go into “dormant” state—the flattened, demotivated, de-energized quality—than to let us burn out. If we take on this role consciously, depression is happy to sit back with a doughnut, but if we don’t do the unavoidable job of managing the gauges and knobs, it will. Which means that we have to take conscious responsibility for our energy levels in order to prevent depression from stepping in and doing it unconsciously.
One of the problems, though, is that depression often doesn’t trust us—our conscious selves—to do this job, to monitor and regulate energy, and often with good reason. If we’ve experienced a lot of states of overwhelm (including trauma) when young, and didn’t have enough support (usually, from our parents) to metabolize these overwhelms, these huge bursts of energy, then we don’t really know how to elegantly “surf” the perpetual swells and dips of energy levels. Most folks with depression were not trained to know how to, or to feel safe with, controlling their own energy.
For instance: maybe a trauma around an illness that left us very weak developed the story, “I’ll never be incapacitated again!”, which is triggered when our energy level drops past a certain point. Then when we have a flu, our body is going through a natural cycle of healing (using a lot of energy to fight the invading bugs), part of us registers just that dip in energy as equivalent to the earlier trauma, and goes into a panic. Then we find ourselves desperately spending energy trying to not feel that sense of weakness, in order to not feel incapacitated (the original trauma), but since that’s futile and yet we’re unable to accept it (“Never again!”), depression steps in and, rightly, shuts us down.
Or, on the flip side, we might have learned when young that when we got really excited about a new person in our life, our mother felt threatened and would go cold, turning away. Given (especially when young) how dependent we are on our mothers, this was a very great threat to us—our ancient nervous systems remember that loss of mother means getting snapped up by a lion. Yet, there’s still an innate, organic movement of excitement when we connect with someone meaningfully, who is attractive or interesting to us. Which leaves us in a bind, forced to choose between our excitement, or our mother. But since we are not aware of that consciously, what we experience is a kind of truncated excitement towards others, which turns into a depression when we get “too excited.” Because we’re not aware of the pattern, the excited energy automatically gets interpreted as “loss of mother,” and in the interests of survival, gets shut down. The threat has become a symbolic one, and yet viscerally real and impactful.
The key point here is that while energy levels per se do not have meaning—is 20 watts more meaningful than 100 watts?—our idiosyncratic histories assign meanings to these different levels of biological and neurological energy, and then respond as if that’s what the energy actually is, e.g., “Falling below 20 watts equals dying.” Then the defensive mechanisms kick in to prevent us from dying, depression being one of them, a “system crash” in service of survival.
So what’s to be done?
In order to disable the more-or-less automatic response of depression to energy changes, we have to do two things: one, learn to consciously regulate our energy levels, taking conscious responsibility for energy; and two, investigate the meaning of different energy levels or states, and see how changing energy is just that, meaningless at base.
Conscious regulation: the noticing part of this is like Homer actually looking at the gauges and just noting where the energy is in the system. The simple question, “What is my energy level at this point?” itself is a powerful practice, because it brings into focus our experience of energy as a thing, as an object of our attention. Whatever scale we want to use—1 to 10, blue to orange to red, low-medium-high, etc.—does not matter, but the measurement, and the ongoing measurement, does. It’s basic information we need to make decisions accurately and precisely as we go through our lives. It may sound tedious at first (it gets habitual and elegant with practice), but if we are not checking, depression gets nervous, as if it sees us spending money without knowing what’s actually the balance in the bank.
When we are doing this monitoring—what’s the energy level now?…and how about now?…and now?…—we can then decide, without panicking, whether we can go play Frisbee in the park with friends; or whether we have enough energy to go to the park and refrain from Frisbee, but talk; or stay home and be quiet.
It also, though, gives us information about whether we might need to focus on generating more energy, if we see we are depleted. For instance, I know at this point that if I’m feeling low energy, I don’t necessarily have to collapse or sleep in order to regain energy, but can do a small task to completion (say, sort the paper clips), and that that success will actually give energy. Then I can spend that energy on something more complex, engaging to completion, and that will give me more energy. Or, I might do some exercise, even a few push ups, and that will give a dose of energy. Or I might notice a tension somewhere in the body and intentionally breath into that area and the release of that muscle gives energy back to my whole system (it takes a lot of energy to hold a muscle tense—try it now and see).
Here is my demo of a simple breath exercise:
The point here is that we can experiment (we have to figure out what works for our unique selves) with how to regain or create energy, and therefore how we can regulate our energy levels consciously, rather than defaulting to depression’s logic: “Shut down system till more energy available,” with the underlying idea being that we have no control over getting more in an enervated environment.
The Meaning of Energy: The other part of being better “regulators” of our own energy is to investigate the supposedly obvious meaning of energy levels, in order to see through that “obviousness.” Here is where mindfulness and inquiry are the tools (rather than twisting knobs up and down) that allow us to focus attention and curiosity onto this question of, “What does energy mean to me?” As in the examples above, low energy may mean, “Immanent destruction.” Or high energy might mean, “Immanent ostracism.” By exploring this connection, which is usually so embedded and unconscious, we get to free ourselves from the fused cause and effect, and see energy as just energy, and therefore don’t react as if threatened with trauma. We convince Homer that he’s not actually sitting in a nuclear power plant, that’s it’s not as dire as we thought.
As you experiment with conscious energy regulation, I think you’ll be surprised at how much depression is scanning this basic level of human experience and biological reality, and how much developing our insight and control actually shifts something fundamental in our vulnerability to depression. Enjoy.