Why You’re Depressed & What You Can Do About It

To tell you why you are depressed, I have to tell you some things about your nervous system.

First off, in the olden days, pre-1995, before Stephen Porges published his Polyvagal theory, the world thought of the nervous system as “fight or flight,” or “rest and digest.” You were either ready for action or chilling out.

As it turns out, our nervous system is a little more complicated than that. What Dr. Porges discovered was that the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system has two branches. The “ventral vagal” branch and the “dorsal vagal” branch.

Let’s just think of them as the “social engagement,” very-good-feelings, branch and the immobilization, or, “depressed and isolated” branch.

Ventral Vagal = “Very good feelings” branch
Dorsal Vagal = “Depressed and isolated feelings” branch

It works like this.

As a mammal, you are always technically “on the go,” meaning that you are ready for action. You are looking for food and watching out for danger. The nervous system is “mobilized with fear.”

However, as a human, you also have a “social engagement” system that allows you to calm down and feel safe through positive social interactions. It’s a “vagal brake” for your natural mammalian need to be “on the lookout” all the time.

This positive social connection is communicated through eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, posture, gesture, intensity, and timing, and happens on an unconscious level. This allows your body and mind to function optimally.

On the other hand, if your social engagement system is out of whack, you are going to revert to one of two other possible states.

You’re going to either enter into the mammalian hyper-arousal state of “fight or flight” activation, or into the dorsal vagal state of withdrawal, isolation, dissociation, diminished breathing, body aches, and poor digestion. Or, you are going to constantly alternate between the two.

If you’ve ever been overwhelmed, helpless or afraid, emotionally or physically, for any length of time, and could not fight or flee your circumstances, your body went into a dorsal vagal state.

If during a period of your life, you stayed in that dorsal vagal state long enough or went into it chronically, your body got conditioned into going into that depressive state, and you have a REALLY hard time getting yourself out of it.

The minute you encounter stress externally, internally, or interpersonally, your body is going to fly past the activation state and go right to dorsal vagal functioning. You are going to shut down, withdraw, and lose your will.

Anti-depressant medications may bring you up into “action” mode for the duration of their effects, but if your ventral vagus is not stimulated through positive social interaction or some other trick, you will inevitably fall back into dorsal vagal/depressive functioning.

So how do you change it?

Slowly. With lots of repetition. The way you change anything in your body.

You stimulate your ventral vagus consistently through simple exercises like the ones in the book, Accessing The Healing Power Of The Vagus Nerve: Self Help Exercises For Anxiety, Depression, Trauma And Autism, and others; and you engage in regular contact with people who make your nervous system feel safe.

Therapy happens to be one of those types of relationships, primarily because it’s a relationship that is designed to be 100% about your needs.

Therapy also happens to be a relationship in which you learn to recognize the triggers that send you into sub-optimal nervous system functioning, learn tools to bring you out of it, and uncover and “work through” the historical origins of your body’s habit of getting stuck in dorsal vagal functioning.

Uncovering and “working through” are, in essence, the practice of “mindfulness.” And mindfulness is a scientifically validated practice that is at the foundation of every path to happiness and peace-of-mind that exists.

And, there you have it. That’s why you’re depressed, and what you can do about it.

If you are interested in taking charge of your nervous system and building a strong foundation for your peace-of-mind and happiness.

Give me a call. We’ll talk.

Emotional Utopia, the book by Leah Benson, LMHC

Contact me now to set up your free 15-minute phone consultation.

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