December 24, 2011

Anger and Depression

Depression is a greatly misunderstood condition that affects millions of people.  A better understanding of depression can help people to recognize and take action as early as possible.  The longer someone suffers from depression the more entrenched the condition can become, making treatment and recovery more difficult.  The most common picture most people have of depression is that someone suffering from depression is withdrawn, sad and passive.  You might expect them to want to stay at home, avoid people and keep to themselves.  You may associate depression with suicidal thoughts or statements or a feeling that the person would be better off dead.  The symptoms described above ARE often present in depression and are a common subtype but depression can appear in a variety of guises and can be perplexing to recognize.


A very common way that depressed people behave is with ANGER.  This is  seen more commonly in men or teenagers but there are also depressed women who react primarily with anger.  An outmoded definition of depression is “anger turned inward.”  Anger turned outward is just as common and often convinces family members that the person is not depressed.  I’d like to talk about what depressed anger looks like and also discuss why it might be seen so often in depression.

Does misery love company?  Perhaps.  A depressed person, overwhelmed and stuck in their world of distress and negative thoughts may very well feel angry and resentful toward the world they see around them where people are still enjoying life and experiencing pleasure.  In depression, we lose the ability to enjoy life.   When good things happen, the depressed person may not be able to recognize it or fail to experience the positive aspects even though they know they “should.”  For example someone with depression might have a happy event-the birth of a friend’s child, recognition at work, a mate’s success in a difficult situation they faced and not be able to react appropriately or-perhaps more difficult-express pleasure and enthusiasm as expected but feel none of those positive emotions.  In those circumstances it is easy to see how depression could cause one to feel irritable and antagonistic to the people around them that are enjoying life in a normal way.


Depression can feel like looking at the world through a blurry glass.  Everything is there, just beyond their reach but they can’t FEEL  it our taste it or enjoy it.  How easy it would be to feel angry at those going about their lives without depression; laughing and enjoying life, feeling excitement and enthusiasm.  Often people who are depressed don’t understand why they feel so bad.  Sometimes there is NO reason.  Many people who suffer from depression seem to be born with that propensity or disposition and despite having reasonably good lives still suffer from depression.  Might it not be easy in those circumstances to develop a chronic resentment toward others who don’t suffer the same experience.


Teenagers commonly express depression through anger.  As a psychologist, I work frequently with adolescents and parents often bring their children in because they seem so ANGRY, even explosive.  Often professional help is sought when the teenager finally exclaims during an angry outburst, “I hate you and I wish I was dead!”  This toxic mix of sadness and hostility is as confusing to the teenager as it is to the frustrated parent.  I believe modern life can make it very difficult to be a teenager.  Yes, families that are middle class or higher can usually afford a very comfortable life for their children with minimal responsibilities beyond school.  Go back just a couple generations and we often heard stories such as, “when I was a child I had to get up at 5am to feed the livestock before going to school” or “I had to walk three miles in the snow to get to school” or “I had to work one or two jobs to help support the family when I was a kid.”  This type of background is much more unusual today.  We  look at our teenagers with their cellphones, their video-games, a computer, their own bedroom, perhaps a car and many other luxuries of modern American life and view them as spoiled and unappreciative.  What is missing in all of this is a way to be productive and useful, to feel like one is entering the adult world.  Hardworking teenagers of earlier generations had much more independence.  It takes until age 18 and often 21 or older now for a young person to be truly independent, to gain the self esteem that comes from making our own choices and having success in the real world; to contribute to society in a meaningful way.  Parents and children are stuck living with each other for much longer than earlier generations.  While this may work fine for many teenagers there is a large subset who are itchy to be on their own and make their own rules-a much tougher road in 21st century life.  Teenagers may also be less self aware and knowledgeable than their parents who have more wisdom and experience.  They may feel depressed but be unable to articulate why.  Confusion and uncertainty can also contribute to anger.  Teenagers who are relatively powerless may manage to contain their anger with friends and in school where the price of losing control is very high.  Parents then may be the only ones who have the dubious pleasure of experiencing their child’s anger.  There is a high rate of substance abuse among teenagers in general and a greater risk of substance abuse in those who suffer from depression.  The most commonly abused substances-alcohol and marijuana can both increase hostility so that can also be a factor in why depressed teenagers are often so angry.


Why are men more prone to express depression through anger?  I think that is the easiest to understand.  Modern culture still rewards men for machismo-showing courage and strength, not exhibiting weakness.  Men are still punished for being weak; labeled as sissy, feminine, gay, unmanly.  Depression is a form of ultimate weakness; an inability to cope with life.  Anger in men is a much more acceptable emotion than sadness or vulnerability.  That pattern develops early in life when little boys are instructed not to cry but to “be a man.”  Men in our society became adept at transforming their emotions into anger and aggression.  If you feel frightened, act tough.  If you feel sad, figure out whom to blame or punish.  Anger becomes a habitual way to deal with tender and disturbing feelings.  “I don’t want to talk about it” is still, sadly a, far too common response in how American men respond to stress.  All this contributes to a dangerous breeding ground for depression and a depression that will end up being expressed as anger.


So, is our loved one depressed?  Am I depressed?  If you mostly see or feel anger, take a closer look.


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