I have talked about childhood trauma a lot in previous articles so I won’t go into the mechanism at length here. But in short, our experiences and environment in our formative years shape us into who we are as adults. As children, we experience traumas and “microtraumas” that many of us are not even aware of nor identify as such.
Dissociation, after all, is our primary response to childhood trauma. So we carry trauma from our formative years long into adulthood. This trauma manifests itself in many different ways. In this article, we will concentrate specifically on its manifestation in depression and existential unhappiness.
Depression as Learned Helplessness and Codependency
When we carry unresolved trauma that manifests itself as depression, it sometimes surfaces as a reaction to something recent. This can be after somebody says or does something, or we ourselves do something, or when we encounter a problem, or even as a response to something we thought about.
These responses can come up as a form of learned helplessness, where the affected individuals encounter a challenge and immediately feel that they can’t do it. This is usually because they lacked encouragement or were openly discouraged to pursue their goals and overcome obstacles when they were children.
So now, even as adults, they get the same reaction. Instead of trying to tackle the challenge, they give up immediately and feel depressed, like children would when they need something but their caregiver won’t help them so they feel helpless and abandoned.
As a coping mechanism, many get into a codependent relationship where they find a surrogate parental figure who will take care of them, and to whom they delegate a big part of their self-responsibility.
Sometimes depression as a response to something concrete in your current environment can be more short-term and it can go away after a while, however it can occur routinely and, as such, develop into a chronic state and a default, automatic reaction. It’s especially common when transitioning from adolescence to early adulthood where you have to deal with new challenging situations much more frequently, which can feel incredibly overwhelming.
For many, it becomes their default emotional state over time, which is then identified as chronic depression.
Depression as Unfinished Healing
In many cases, if not most, depression can be seen as unfinished healing. Here, a people feel depressed because they carry unresolved trauma about something emotionally painful. Their depressive state is a response to something ancient that they haven’t fully dealt with.
This often happens when individuals have a lot of repressed anger for their primary traumatizers. A primary component of it is also the failure to put responsibility where it belongs and to fully comprehend the horrors that they felt when they were a child. They were unable to stay in touch with all their painful emotions: hurt, loneliness, rage, betrayal, sadness, shame, and many others.
When we are children, feeling anger is often forbidden. Yet feeling sadness, guilt, shame, and other low-energy emotions is permitted. Consequently, the children grow up feeling chronically sad, discouraged, and helpless—i.e., depressed.
They are unable to overcome it because their healing process is stunted and they are unable to resolve their feelings of anger and responsibility. Sadly, they are out of touch with those parts of reality.
As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma:
“However, failing to place responsibility where it belongs stunts, and even completely stops, the healing process. It also perpetuates the dysfunctional dynamics of abuse. That is, if a traumatized person thinks their abuser is not responsible for hurting them, then they will continue to repress their anger and act it out onto themselves and others.”
As a result, it produces a myriad of symptoms that never really go away until the root cause is identified and resolved correctly.
Depression That Doesn’t Look Like Depression
There are a lot of people who are called “high-functioning,” yet deep down they are chronically depressed. Sometimes they themselves are aware of it, while in many other cases, they are sadly not.
Some people always appear happy because they are smiley, cheerful, and positive. Others always help out and cheer others. Others are overly angry and aggressive, which is sometimes perceived as the opposite of depression because of its high energy. Others carry a lot of existential dread, desperation, or self-loathing, which is oftentimes masked or expressed as sarcasm, misanthropy, or self-deprecation.
Other common, potential signs of depression are the following: lack of motivation, lack of contentment, lack of interest, lack of meaning, self-harm. It also often involves such psychological and emotional issues as toxic shame, chronic guilt, social anxiety, perfectionism, narcissism, self-esteem issues, and poor self-care.
Whether it’s clinical depression, seasonal depression, situational depression, any other type of depression, or “just” a short-term depressive episode, and whether it is officially diagnosed or not, the emotions can be debilitating. They can lead a person to very dark places, sometimes with no return.
Depression shouldn’t be downplayed, no matter how “not serious” it looks, both in yourself and in others. Take good care of yourself. Ideally, systematically work on the core issues and do so in a well-rounded way.
It is possible to get better.