“I became a student of my own depressed experience, trying to unthread its causes. What was the root of all this despair?”
So muses author Liz Gilbert, whose struggle with severe depression formed the basis for her mega-bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love.
What many people forget is that before Gilbert set off on her international healing journey, she struggled with clinical depression.
One night, she spent hours with her hand wrapped around a kitchen knife in her New York apartment, battling a strong internal compulsion to self-harm and suicide.
World Suicide Prevention Day is Thursday, September 21st, and it’s a powerful annual reminder that severe depression, anxiety, bipolar, and other mood disorders can be deadly.
Today, let’s talk about how people with mood disorders can regain their emotional stability.
What are Mood Disorders?
Mood disorders are mental and emotional health issues that cause significant changes in an individual’s affect (or mood). That’s why mood disorders are also called affective disorders.
Some of the most common mood disorders include major depression, anxiety, bipolar, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
There is a wide spectrum of severity when it comes to mood disorders. For example, depression can range from situational depression (which is short-term and often surrounding a stressful life circumstance) to clinical depression (which is debilitating and long-term).
While more severe mood disorders are less common, statistics from Mental Health America state that up to 20% of the general population experiences symptoms of depression in a given month. 1 in 5 people in this country know at least a little bit of what it’s like to be depressed.
The Connection Between Mood Disorders and Addiction
Most often, mood disorders drive substance abuse, but did you know that mood disorders can be caused by substance abuse? It’s true. For example, drinking may lead to depression, and stimulant use can trigger anxiety.
Certain medical conditions – such as neurological disorders, cancer, chronic vitamin deficiency, and other biochemical imbalances – can also cause mood disorders.
According to The Surgeon General’s Report on Addiction, more than 45% of patients seeking treatment for substance use disorder have a co-occurring mental disorder. This is called dual diagnosis, and it’s key to understanding how addiction works.
Mental and emotional suffering plays a major role in the development of addiction. When a person struggles with underlying core issues of depression, anxiety, fear, shame, and hopelessness, they are much more likely to turn to substances for solace and relief.
Why does this happen? One reason is that people don’t recognize their emotional suffering as legitimate.
They convince themselves that it “isn’t really that bad” and tell themselves that they should “just push through” or “forget about it and move on”.
Since they don’t view their depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress as valid, they don’t seek help and treatment.
In the words of professor and author Dr. Marc Lewis in his bestselling book The Biology of Desire, so many people “[cannot] quite believe that emotional suffering is real suffering, that it counts.”
Sadly, even when people do view their emotional suffering as problematic and seek treatment, too often they don’t find the support they need in order to heal fully.
Medication and Professional Support
Biochemical imbalances are real, and medication can be a bridge to take people from where they are to where they want to be. That said, medication is just one piece of the larger puzzle.
A person may very well need medication in order to move through a crisis point. But once they’re past the crisis, they need to focus on doing the mental and emotional healing work that will empower them to identify and alleviate the roots of their suffering.
As they address their judgments, limiting beliefs, and emotional wounds, they may find that their need for medication decreases dramatically.
Some people will need medication on a long-term basis, but others can slowly and safely taper off under the supervision of a qualified medical professional.
In our Program, we see many Participants who were diagnosed with mental health issues while under the influence of addictive substances. In such cases, we work to establish a healthy post-detox baseline state, and then assess their mood and affect from there.
How do we help people to reach this place of stability, health, and wellness?
We teach them how to practice self-compassion. We give them the tools they need to stop hating themselves. We offer them a safe space in which to begin their own journeys of self-acceptance.
Mood Disorders: Your Ultimate Teachers in Compassion
Years after finding relief and healing from the severe depression that plagued her, Liz Gilbert wrote:
“Please understand that these difficult parts of yourself (the shameful parts, the regretful parts, and those episodes of your biography that are so spiky and troublesome and contradictory and embarrassing that you simply don’t know what to do with them) … please understand that these difficult parts of yourself are your ultimate teachers in compassion. Those parts of yourself are where you must begin learning how to love.”
We couldn’t have said it better.
Our hope for everyone who struggles with a mood disorder is that they may learn how to love the “spiky and troublesome” parts of themselves: the depression, the anxiety, the substance abuse. And we hope that in doing so, they can seek and find the support they need in order to heal.