For many, some level of discomfort because of work is an everyday occurrence. And, yes, if this discomfort isn’t somehow responded to, it can lead to depression. Let’s look at how this works, and what to do about it.
There are lots of reasons our work may make us sad or angry or scared. Our employers may expect more than seems reasonable. Bosses or co-workers may be angry or scared themselves, demanding or even incompetent. Exclusive sub-groups can form, creating tensions that can be tough to manage. Then there’s the matter of compassion fatigue. This is the emotional exhaustion that can come from working with traumatized people often found in medical staff, clergy and counseling professionals. Entire books are written on this topic alone.
In considering work and depression, it’s important to include what we bring to the table. If we came to the job with some level of sadness, fear or anger already built in, we’ll tend to unconsciously find reasons to feel those same emotions in the work environment, no matter what the work setting is really like.
Regardless of the source of our tough emotions on the job, unaddressed they can build in us. And unaddressed difficult emotions can lead to depression. Once we’re depressed, all aspects of our lives are affected. First of all, it’s hard to focus, think effectively, or interact. Often we just want to be left alone. On many jobs, this isn’t an option.
Then there’s the impact of depression on the rest of our lives: we may withdraw, eat too much or too little; sleep too much or too little. Relationships can feel overwhelming, unwanted or never enough. To make our selves feel better, we may use habits: too much drinking, exercise, sex, food, or even work. Eventually physical health may be compromised.
So what to do, if you find yourself depressed?
Of course, if your depression is persistent and incapacitating, you may need professional help. Talk to your doctor as soon as you can. This is nothing to take lightly.
However, if occasionally you feel the blues when your energy and motivation are lower than usual, and for brief periods joy seems elusive, consider this: Your emotions are trying to teach you something.
Thomas Moore has a wonderful book called Care of the Soul. This is not a religious book. Moore is expert in Greek mythology. He uses myth to help us see something often overlooked: Depression can be an informant, not an enemy.
Informants often appear as enemies, but in time, they teach us. In Journey Beyond Hardship, I detail an exercise for managing depression called “Feeding the Hungry Ghost.” This exercise is based on a Tibet tradition of teaching children to carry a single grain of rice in their pockets to feed the Hungry Ghost when it shows up. Essentially, the Hungry Ghost represents all the fears, hurts and sadness of the child.
When the Hungry Ghost creeps up, Tibetan children are taught to turn and look. Of course, nothing is there. But if still afraid or sad, these children are taught to throw the single grain of rice, because if the Hungry Ghost is so small as to be invisible, surely a grain of rice will satisfy it.
Here are three steps to translate this tradition into a tool for responding to moments of depression:
Face Your Own Discomfort
Many of us are trained to do anything but look right at our tough feelings. We are provided countless ways to distract ourselves from ourselves.
Nourish It With Your Attention
Rather than toss your tough feelings a grain of rice, nourish those emotions with your attention. As hard as it may be, breathe into the hard feelings. By doing this, you are saying to your own unconscious self, “I know these painful emotions intend to teach me. I want the guidance they might offer.” By the way, this isn’t about getting stuck in these feelings. Yes, you may feel the hurt or anger or fear more intensely when you give those emotions your full attention. But that may be all that’s needed. The simple act of listening to our own feelings may dissipate those very emotions. All of us and all parts of us just want to be known.
Listen for Information
You might be surprised by what you can learn when taking some time daily for a week or two to simply recognize your tough feelings, and give them your attention. You might learn you don’t feel down all the time. You only feel down around a certain person or just people at work, or at certain times of the day. You might learn that the tough feelings you have, for example, around certain people at work is a lot like a feeling you had around certain people from your youth. the important thing here is to listen.
With this guidance, you may decide to choose a different internal response around those people, even if they don’t change. Or you may decide to adjust some part of your work world so you have less contact with that person/people.
Bottom line – all emotions are intended to teach us. Let them, and as you do, love every thing you find out about yourself along the way. Compassion for yourself, and every single part of who you are, no matter how scary or bad it may seem, is the best fuel for the journey.