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Fight back: An ecopsychological understanding of depression


Will Falk writes: I’m an environmental activist. I have depression. To be an activist with depression places me squarely in an irreconcilable dilemma: The destruction of the natural world creates stress which exacerbates depression. However, acting to stop the destruction of the natural world exposes me to a lot of stress which, again, exacerbates depression.

Will Falk, Deep Green Resistance

I am an environmental activist. I have depression. To be an activist with depression places me squarely in an irreconcilable dilemma: The destruction of the natural world creates stress which exacerbates depression. Cessation of the destruction of the natural world would alleviate the stress I feel and, therefore, alleviate the depression. However, acting to stop the destruction of the natural world exposes me to a great deal of stress which, again, exacerbates depression.

Either, the destruction persists, I am exposed to stress, and I remain depressed. Or, I join those resisting the destruction, I am exposed to stress, and I remain depressed.

Depressed if I do, depressed if I don’t. So, I fight back.

I will always struggle with depression. I know it sounds like the typically fatalistic expression of a depressed mind, but accepting this reality releases me from the false hope that I will ever live completely free from the guilt, hopelessness, and emptiness that are depression. Accepting this reality, frees the emotional energy I spent clinging to false hope. Instead of using this energy searching for a cure that never existed, I can devote this energy to activism and to managing depression in realistic ways.

Coming to this realization was not easy. It’s taken me five years since I was first diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, confirmation of the diagnosis from three different doctors in three different cities, two suicide attempts, and more emotional meltdowns than I can count to finally accept my predicament.

***

A recent drive through the oil fields in Utah’s Uintah Basin reminds me why depression will haunt me for the rest of my life.

The drive east on U.S. Highway 40 from Park City, UT to Vernal leaves me nowhere to hide. In my rearview mirror, melting snow sparkles as it dwindles high on the shoulders of the Wasatch Mountains. Climate change threatens Utah’s snowfall and Park City may be bereft of snow in my lifetime. Pulling my gaze from the mirror to look through my windshield, tall thin oil rigs rise from drilling platforms to pierce the sky after they’ve pierced the earth. Next to the platforms, well pumps move lethargically, doggedly up and down. The wells are mechanical vampires, stuck in slow motion, sucking blood from the earth.

While the rigs inject poison and the pumps extract oil, it’s hard not to think of the addict’s needles. Scars form on the basin floor where once-thick pinyon-juniper forests and rolling waves of sagebrush are piled in heaps around the fracking operations. The swathes of destruction betray addiction as surely as track marks.

I pass countless tanker trucks parked next to round, squat oil storage containers. The trucks are filling up with yellow crude before hauling the oil to refineries in Salt Lake. From there, the oil will be shipped all over the West to be burned. Each oil platform, each rig, each well I pass strikes a blow to my peace of mind. Each truckload of oil burned pushes the planet closer to runaway climate change and total collapse.

My intuition is infected with a familiar dread. Looking around me, I am met only with trauma. So, I look to the future. I see sea levels rising, cities drowning, and refugees fleeing. I see oceans acidifying, coral reefs bleaching, and aquatic life collapsing. I see forests burning, species disappearing, and topsoil blowing away.

I don’t see a livable future.

My hands tighten on the steering wheel, the muscles in my face cramp, and I feel nauseous. My left foot is restless. My right foot, though it is busy with the accelerator, is restless, too. I am speeding. My body is confused. It has no evolutionary reference for being trapped in the cab of a car while traveling at highway speeds.

If you could see through my flesh and bone to the organs forming my stress response system, what would you see? You’d see my adrenal glands pumping out stress hormones. You’d see the stress hormones preparing my body and brain to fight or flee. After a few minutes, you’d see my shrunken, damaged hippocampus trying to signal my adrenal glands that the threat has passed and to stop flooding my frontal cortex with stress hormones. You’d see my hippocampus fail, my adrenal glands continue to pump out hormones, and my risk for sinking into a full-blown episode of depression rise.

***

Neurobiological research suggests that the highly recurrent nature of depression is, in part, linked to the way stress hormones can produce brain damage. Advances in neuroscience unveil a conception of depression as a vicious cycle in the body’s stress response system. In a healthy system, adrenals produce hormones in response to stress. The stress passes and the hippocampus signals the adrenals to stop hormone production.

When the frontal cortex – especially the hippocampus and amygdala – is exposed to too many stress hormones, for too long, the frontal cortex begins to shrink. A damaged hippocampus fails to stop the adrenals which continue to produce stress hormones which continue to damage the hippocampus. Mood, memory, attention, and concentration are all affected. Problems with mood, memory, attention, and concentration create their own stresses which intensify the cycle.

Recent psychiatric findings paint a bleak picture. The American Psychiatric Association describes depression as “highly recurrent,” with at least 50% of those recovering from a first episode experiencing one or more additional episodes in their lifetime, and approximately 80% of those recovering from two episodes having another recurrence. Someone with three or more episodes has a 90% risk of recurrence. On average, a person with a history of depression will have five to nine separate depressive episodes in his or her lifetime.

I have had four distinct episodes of depression which all but guarantees that depression will continue to recur for me. I do experience periods of remission where I am relatively free of the symptoms of depression. But, even in these times, depression lurks in the shadows forcing me into a perpetual vigilance, struggling to avoid relapse. Depression may fade, but memories of depression’s pain never do. I live in fear, daily, that the next episode is just around the corner.

Mainstream psychology stops the discussion, here, to prescribe avoidance of places that trigger depression, like the Uintah Basin and to conclude that a combination of improving the hippocampus’ ability to switch off stress hormones, eliminating as much stress from the depressed’s life as possible, and coping with the stress that can’t be eliminated is the key to recovery.

I have no reason to believe this wouldn’t work, in another time or another world. But, most of the planet has been turned into places like the Uintah Basin. There are precious few places free from civilized violence. While our homes are on the brink of annihilation, while horror adheres to our daily experience, while protecting life requires facing these horrors, is the elimination of stress possible? Is coping honest?

***

Ecopsychology shows that the elimination of stress is not possible in this ecological moment. Where psychology is the study of the soul and ecology is the study of the natural relationships creating life, ecopsychology insists that the soul cannot be studied apart from these natural relationships and encourages us to contemplate the kinds of relationships the soul requires to be truly healthy. Viewing depression through the lens of ecopsychology, we can explain depression as the result of problems with our relationships with the natural world. Depression cannot be cured until these relationships are fixed.

This explanation begins with stress and the body’s relationship with it. Stress is fundamentally ecological and can be understood as flowing through an animal’s relationship with his or her habitat. The classic example of the ecological nature of an animal’s stress response system involves the relationship between prey and predator. When a moose is beset by wolves, her stress response system produces hormones that help her flee or fight the wolves.

The relationship formed between the wolf, the moose, the moose’s stress hormones, and the moose’s stress response system is one of the countless relationships necessary for the moose’s survival. This is true for everyone. Other relationships animals rely on include air, water, and space, animals of other species, members of the animal’s own species, fungi, flowers, and trees, the cells forming the animal’s own flesh, the bacteria in the animal’s gut, and the yeast on the animal’s skin. Relationships give an animal life, and in the end, relationships bring the animal’s death. In an animal’s death, other beings gain life. The history of Life is the history of these mutually beneficial relationships.

Civilized humans poison air and water, alter space, murder species, destroy fungi, flowers, and trees, infect cells, mutate bacteria, and turn yeast deadly. In short, they threaten the planet’s capacity to support Life. Not only do civilized humans destroy those we need relationships with, they destroy the possibility of these relationships in the future. Every indigenous language lost, every species pushed to extinction, every unique acre of forest clearcut is a relationship foreclosed now and forever.

Living honestly in this reality, we open ourselves to depression. Losing these relationships, and seeing a future devoid of the relationships we need, creates unspeakable stress. Living with this stress every day can flood the frontal cortex with stress hormones, shrink the hippocampus, and push the stress response system past its ability to recover.

If this happens, you may be haunted with depression for the rest of your life.

To experience major depressive disorder is to know consciousness is an involuntary bodily function. Just like your heartbeat, you cannot turn consciousness off without chemicals, a blow to the head, or some other violence to the body and brain. Awareness is a muscle, and perceiving phenomena is how this muscle works. Depression is constant pain accompanying perception. In the civilized world, pain and trauma reflect from countless phenomena. The destruction has become so complete, consciousness finds nowhere to rest in peace, no place free from the reminders of violence.

***

I know I have described a harsh reality for those of us living with depression. It is, however, the reality. For many of us, depression is a lifelong illness. In the long run, accepting a harsh reality is always better than maintaining denial. I have found that accepting this reality helps me manage my depression daily and enables me to be a more effective activist.

Accepting that I will always struggle with depression does not imply giving up. On the contrary, accepting this struggle requires a commitment to daily discipline. Several of my doctors have compared depression to diabetes. Just like many diabetics have to monitor their blood sugar, avoid certain foods, and regular exercise, depressives must build a daily practice into their lives. For me, this means regular cardiovascular exercise that helps my body deal with stress hormones, getting eight hours of sleep nightly, drinking alcohol sparingly, limiting situations where I am tempted to ruminate, and a consistent investment in my social relationships both human and nonhuman.

Coming to grips with the lifelong nature of depression has also given me firepower against depression’s perpetual guilt. The guilt associated with depression can become so pervasive it builds layers on itself. I feel guilty, for example, when I am tired, when I can’t seem to focus on writing, when I cannot find the mental fortitude to see the tasks I’ve promised to complete through to conclusion. I remind myself that lack of energy and problems with concentration and goal-oriented thinking are symptoms of depression. Then, I feel guilty for forgetting and guilty for letting myself feel guilty.

Accepting that I will always struggle with depression is accepting that I will always struggle with the symptoms of depression like guilt, too. Knowing this, when I find myself mired in cycles of guilt, I stop trying to rationalize my way through the guilt and simply place the guilt in a corner where it doesn’t matter if I should feel guilty or not.

Accepting the lifelong nature of depression relieves me of the search for a cure. The personal search for a cure is quickly converted by depression into pressure to get better.  This pressure becomes a sense of failure when depression’s symptoms intensify. While the world burns, the stress causing depression is always present. I may defend myself from this depression effectively for awhile but, the violence is so total and the trauma so obvious, there will be times that the stress overwhelms my defenses. This is not a personal failing and this is not my fault. I fight as hard as I can, but I will not always win.

Most importantly, acceptance makes me a better activist. I cannot separate my experience from the countless humans and nonhumans who make my experience possible. Fortunately, ecopsychology gives me a lexicon to communicate about the relationships creating my experience. Understanding that omnipresent stress, caused by the omnipresent destruction of the relationships that make us human, causes depression frees me from the voice telling me depression is my fault.

Before I could understand this, I had to open myself to the reality of these relationships. These relationships are our greatest vulnerability and our greatest strength. We cannot change this. The ongoing loss of these relationships is incredibly painful. If we want the pain to stop one day, we must fight back. That will be incredibly painful, too.

***

Life speaks, but rarely in English. One human language is much too small to convey the ever unfolding meanings at play in the world. Wind and water, soil and stone, fin, fur, and feather are only a few of Life’s dialects.

Tectonic plates tell mountains where to form. Blood in the water tells a shark food may be near. Foreign proteins on the surface of dangerous cells, tell your white blood cells to attack. A single chirp, formed in a prairie dog’s throat, lasting a mere tenth of a second, tells an entire colony the species and physical characteristics of an approacher.

You may not hear Life utter the words, “Stop the destruction.” But, Life’s languages are as diverse as the variety of physical experiences. The pain of depression is a physical experience, and it follows that Life speaks through depression. That pain will haunt me for the rest of my life. Life continues to speak. It says, “Fight back.”

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