Summer –for some, it is means attending backyard barbeques with family and friends while drinking ice-cold glasses of lemonade. For others, it may highlight a sense of loneliness, despair, or meaninglessness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (2015), the 12-month prevalence rate for adults to experience a major depressive episode is 6.7% which equates to 16.1 million Americans having been afflicted by a major depressive episode in 2015. Individuals with depression experience sadness, hopelessness, and disinterest. They are often physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained and may lack the motivation, energy or both to engage life in pleasurable or meaningful pursuits. Individuals experiencing depression are often plagued by self-defeating and unhelpful thinking styles that solidify and perpetuate the disorder. For some, these symptoms translate to turning down offers to attend get-togethers. For others, a lack of social invites or relational conflict while attending events may serve as yet another painful reminder of one’s perceived inadequacies or deficiencies. In fact, the experience of depression is unique and neither a symptom checklist nor a news article can capture the breadth of internal and external torment experienced by those who suffer with it.
Depression impacts us most where we find shelter from its cruelty—in relationships to ourselves, others, and life itself. However, it doesn’t have to. While there is loss in suffering, there is gain in transcending pain and a growing amount of newer research suggests that the experience of awe can be a catalyst for this change. The experience of awe includes both a sense of vastness, in that the experience is larger than one’s self, and accommodation, in that an individual must modify their existing beliefs about the world and their place in it to make room for the experience. Moreover, the unique emotion of awe, which contains a mix of both excitement and trepidation, can be felt in various ways unique to the individual. This could include a multitude of events such as concerts or spiritual events, immersion in the beauty of nature, or taking a trip through a historical site. According to researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, awe can often be experienced at social gatherings such as concerts, sporting events, and political rallies and promotes social integration, meaning individuals are more likely connect to others when they experience awe which helps to formulate one’s meaning, purpose, personal agency, and collective identity. Not only can awe promote social engagement, a multitude of research has found that the immense power of awe to: elevate one’s experience beyond suffering, increase positivity and psychological well-being, induce personal growth, empower resourceful ways of thinking, enhance goal striving, expand one’s perception of time, and increase one’s ability to ascertain alternative perspectives of experience.
Depression sufferers often struggle to ascertain meaning and purpose in their lives, lack clarity to understand ambiguous life circumstances, have difficulty in coping with interpersonal loss, or have trouble making transitions to new roles. They are internally conflicted with self-depreciating and defeating thinking styles and utilize unproductive survival strategies to manage the conditions of being human. As a clinician, it is an essential task to encourage those impacted by depression to initiate behaviors that are conducive to the experience of awe in an effort to thwart the negative thinking, disinterest, and disconnection to others that is prevalent in depression. This in and of itself can be a monumental task, and requires a shift in one’s mental position to one of curiosity, wonder, and possibilities. While a trip to the Grand Canyon or Eifel Tower may be unrealistic for you at this moment, meeting up with friends and family to experience the invigorating taste of barbequed spare ribs, being entertained by a performance at the Leo J Welder Center, cheering on the Victoria Generals, or taking a walk in Riverside Park on a clear summer evening might be just the awe inducing event you are looking for to begin to change the way you view yourself, others, and your life.
Depression is a treatable mental health disorder and people do get well, most often with professional help. Research has consistently found that combination therapy, psychotherapy and pharmacologic treatment together, are most effective in the treatment of depression. If you or someone you care for is suffering from depression, help is available at Believe Behavioral Health which offers a combination of rehabilitative case-management, psychotherapy with licensed clinicians and psychiatric medication management. To get help or additional resources please call 361-894-8734. Joseph Smullen, LCSW is a psychotherapist and member of Believe Behavioral Health staff.