Sadness Is the Remedy for Depression

Contribution by Paul Lichtenberg, PhD

All too often, sadness is confused with depression.  But, what most don't realize is that sadness is actually  the opposite of depression. In fact, sadness -- I mean true sadness, the experience of bringing loss into your conscious awareness -- is the remedy for depression.I'm quite familiar with both depression and sadness, from both sides of the therapeutic relationship. Though as a child and young adult, I suffered from depression, depression saved my life. It buffered my childhood trauma until I was able to find sadness.  

How can depression save a life?

The first thing to understand about depression, as a response to trauma, is that it takes the emotional reactions -- fear, hurt, rage, helplessness -- and turns them inward. Then, like someone hiding their valuables in a safe, depression buries them away.  You see, to express these emotions would threaten one’s very survival.

The problem, as you might imagine, is that the very layer of numbness that protects you, also isolates you. You’re not necessarily physically alone, but you become emotionally disconnected from yourself and the world.  This pretty accurately described my life after my father died when I was twelve. My father was forty-six, a decorated war hero, and an alcoholic who was unable to function when he returned from the war.For my father, the war never ended, and his family reminded him of that everyday. This tragic fact of war became the basic wound of my childhood trauma. Trauma always has a face, and a story.I remember a night shortly before my father died. He was drunk and harassing my mother. I stood between them, pushed my father, pounded on his chest with my fists, and said, "Leave my mother alone. I hope you die."  And soon, he did. Like many children of my generation, I did not get therapeutic help. I never grieved. I didn't understand. I believed I killed my father. I turned inward. I closed myself off. I became depressed.  One way we can understand the experience of depression is to see it as the failure to properly grieve. We might say that “proper grieving” is the understanding of depression. We can see the context in which we became depressed, what triggers depression, as well as an awareness of the complex of emotions involved in this traumatic psychic injury.Simply put, grieving is the expression of sadness -- the psychic, energetic release of afflictive emotions surrounding loss.

And this can include any kind of loss, even disappointment. We might say that all losses, in the context of the life process, are necessary losses. Loss accompanies life at every turn. There is no way around it. And so, loss itself is never the problem. The problem is not learning how to transform loss into meaning.  

When we give meaning to loss, we awaken the deeper resources of our spiritual awareness and wisdom. When we give meaning to loss, we create the capacity to love and create, find peace and joy, and live fully.  This is where sadness comes in.

It's important to understand the vital role that sadness plays in life

I was so angry when my father died. I cursed his grave. I cursed his name. I called him a drunk. Then, one day, after years of psychoanalytic psychotherapy (which is now my own vocation, craft, and professional work), my analyst said to me, "You know Paul, your father was a war hero." It was as if something in the transmission of his words, very deep, dark, unimaginably heavy, and suffocating, was opened.  I started to cry, and then sob.  I cried often for years after that.  In those words, I found my sadness.  It was as if my analyst, through his deep caring, gave me permission to grieve, to openly release and express what was denied and taken many years before. And in that sadness, I found my father again.  He would visit my dreams and begin to guide me.  He became a real person who suffered greatly, and gave me the gift of meaning.  

There's an unexpected relationship between sadness and depression

And the deeper I went, I began to see this subtle and profound relationship between sadness and depression. Though they were always connected, they were radically different. Depression and sadness lived at opposite poles of awareness.  

My experience has taught me that sadness is actually the remedy for depression.  When you find that space in your heart that feels like the rising of a tide, and the tears are coming up, let them come. Honor them. Look at them in wonder and with gratitude.  

From the editors: Did Paul's perspective on sadness and depression shift the way you look grief and loss? If it resonated with you, please share this post with your family, friends, and community.