According to several studies, one in eight women will develop depression in their lifetimes? Why are we such a depressed society in an era of wealth and convenience? We can drop our clothes at the cleaners, have our dogs walked and our children cared for. We have an endless supply of entertainment via television, movies, books for our kindles, Ipads, cellphones and email. We can travel almost anywhere in the world, and see almost anyone we want to see. In a ‘developed’ nation, we have one of the highest rates of unhappiness around. Our young people are seemingly more depressed than ever, too. In some ways it is understandable, with the demands placed on them to adapt to such a fast-changing world, but they have endless ways to appease themselves too, with video games and designer clothing, sports activities and high school friends. What gives, exactly?
Depression wasn’t named as such until the 20th century but Hippocrates even had a name for feeling blue, calling it ‘melancholia’. Feeling down in ancient Greece and Rome was attributed to the bodily fluids being out of balance, and sadness and depression were often blamed on ‘black bile’, one of the four humors thought to be responsible for someone’s emotional temperament and overall vitality. The other humors, or fluids, were yellow bile, associated to the fire element or heat and dryness; phlegm, associated to wet and cold, or water; black bile, associated to the earth element and cold and dry; as well as blood, associated with the air element, and hot and wet.
The Greeks and Romans were not the only ones who attributed emotional states to earth, air, fire and water elements. Ancient Chinese medicine gives great attention to the influences of nature on our mental health as does Ayurvedic medicine, the sister science to yoga. Chinese medicine organizes emotions very specifically, even associating each emotion to an organ system in the body. When we continually have a specific set of thoughts that are associated to a particular emotion, such as anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, joy, etc. they affect the organs in either a positive or negative manner.
In the Chinese conceptualization of the elements as they relate to emotions, there are five, called the Wu Hsing, and this describes the flow of Qi or Pranic energy within the system, as it is balanced by yin and yang, or female or male, assertive or more passive energies. Ideally, these are always in balance. In the Greek and Roman conceptualization of health the ‘fluids’ could be compared to the flow of qi, so they were not entirely off base when they envisioned the body working under these great influences. The five elements in the Chinese arts include wood, fire, earth, metal and water, so essentially, the later Greek and Roman dynasties eliminated metal from their understanding of the influences on our health.
There are five distinct stages of growth and evolution in the body and in the Universe according to this tradition, so all emotions affect the inner as they do the outer and vice versa. Spring, for example, is considered an ideal time to cleanse the liver as it is associated with the wood element. Stress, anger and frustration directly affect the liver and the other bodily organs it helps to control, such as the eyes and tendons. When you feel angry for a long period of time, you can destroy your liver. It is thought, according to this tradition, that stored anger becomes depression, the same way that stored sadness or stored fear does.
Ayurvedic medicine has a similar idea of the five forces, which govern our lives, as well as our emotional health. These are called space/air, fire, water and earth. The elements are each considered to have their own properties which are reflected in us, as in nature and the Universe at large. What is all around us, is in us. Universal Consciousness, in fact, is thought to be the overarching expression of matter and energy through consciousness – they are not separate things, but One. When we are out of balance with the Universal energies, then we are likely to feel depressed.
Being depressed literally means that someone is pressing their emotions down, instead of feeling them and letting them go. Many of us don’t realize how good we are at suppressing our emotions. We are truly masters at it, and until we have a health problem or feel acute depression, we often aren’t willing to look at the habits we have built to protect us against unwanted feelings. These uncomfortable feelings must be processed in a healthy manner so that they do not get stored in the body, able to cause havoc and disease.
Early Western medicine, namely psychology and psychotherapy, aimed at ‘fixing’ a depressed person by changing their brain chemistry, but they often did not address the issues which were underlying a deep sadness or depression. Cognitive therapies were developed, as were pharmaceutical ones, and while psychotherapy effectively addressed some of the issues of depression, scientists in a new field, notably Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi noticed that more emphasis needed to be placed on peak performance or the states of happiness in human beings in order to promote more positive emotions, instead of concentrating only on sadness. Especially through the work of Csikszentmihalyi, it was found that even people with very traumatic childhood experiences could figure out ways to be happy, so the emphasis changed to creating a field that has come to be known as ‘positive psychology.’ It does not intend to remove other psychological methods, but to augment them with a different approach to understanding human emotions.
In the field of positive psychology, researchers primarily focus on:
(1) positive experiences,
(2) enduring psychological traits,
(3) positive relationships and
(4) positive institutions
One finding of this new field was that people who spend time with friends and family or who truly connect with others feel far less depressed than those who do not. No amount of psychotherapy or pharmaceutical intervention can replace the basic human need to connect to others, so when people who tended to be self-isolating because they were depressed started to join social groups or meet new friends through a church or other venue, they began to feel more happy.
It seems that our feelings of happiness aren’t created by the endless supply of technological gadgets that keep us busy but not truly connected. They supply the pseudo-united ties that we seek, but leave us wanting. Young people often feel more isolated than ever, even though they often attend schools with hundreds of other students. A true connection requires time, and clear attention. Few of us can offer this to our closest loved ones, even, because we are so distracted by our responsibilities and the devices, which are supposed to keep us on top of those responsibilities. The ancients knew that nature held a key to our mental health, and they stayed close to it in order to observe the cycles that must be kept balanced within us also.
Finding some quiet moments to commune with the sky, air and trees, a river, a stream, or an ocean can reconnect you with the elements which Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine find critical to our overall health. Our ‘humors,’ as the Greeks and Romans once called them can be stabilized. It is when we disconnect from things and devices and connect with our truest elements that we can start to find a vitality and peace again, which is so often lacking in modern society. It is from this stillness that we can start to check in with our bodies and feel emotions that want to come to the surface for processing, as well.
Sorrow, fear, anger and even joy cannot arise if we have compartmentalized them so completely that they subconsciously run our lives from behind the scenes. If we are not willing to allow them their proper place, so that they can move through us, like water in a river, or clouds in the sky, they become stagnant. Water that doesn’t move can become rancid. This is true of our emotions as well. Inert emotions affect our organs too, just as stagnant water cannot quench the thirst of a parched person, animal or plant.
A torpid heart cannot express love fully, and a dull mind cannot express its most vivid creative imaginings. Depression is a depressed state of emotion. We cannot fear the feelings we wish to dismiss. We must let them move, like weather, through us, and then melancholia will not take us over. The word ‘anxiety’ even comes from the German root word ‘angst’ meaning narrow. It is time to widen our horizons, and take in the big blue sky. We can gaze at the stars or swim in an endless ocean, but connecting with nature is one of the first effective ways to balance our emotional states.