In the Zone: Depression and EmotionsIntroduction: This article proposes a non-drug treatment for depression in terms of hidden emotions. It appears that most depression involves the numbing of emotions, especially grief, fear, anger and shame. Depression occurs when these emotions loop back on themselves, having feelings about feelings, sometimes without limit. Feedback loops can produce emotions that are experienced as either unbearably painful or out of control, or at least anticipated to be. However, there is a zone between these two extremes that allows one to feel emotions and to also observe oneself feeling. This zone is possible because of the human capacity for role-taking; seeing one’s self from the imagined point of view of another person. Some implications of these ideas for the treatment of depression are outlined.

Modern societies take a dim view of emotions. They are usually judged to be far less important than the material world, behavior, thought and most everything else. We learn both as children and adults: “Don’t be so emotional! Or: “Don’t get mad, get even!” We are taught two extremes: either hide or act out emotions. These two attitudes may be at the root of many of humanity’s most trying problems, but difficult to change until we learn more about the emotional world.

Just as emotions sometimes cause havoc in our lives, the study of emotions is also in a state of chaos. Until recently, even in social and behavioral studies, it was a very small field compared to the attention given to behavior, cognition, alienation, self-esteem and many other topics. Grown larger in recent years, it is still preliminary in nature, with many different and often conflicting approaches. It seems to me, however, that there are occasional glimpses of clarity and light.

The following, for example, is a precise description of a zone needed for dealing directly with intense emotions, and some of the difficulties. It is focused on a single problem, how fear is experienced in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but it might have wider implications.

[In PTSD there are] cycles of flashbacks and numbing. It can be exhausting to fall into flashbacks or to feel like everything, all feelings, are shut down and inaccessible. In working with trauma, it’s critical to develop a healing zone, a space between flashback and dissociation where memories can be felt and also known to be in the past. (Danylchuk 2011. Also Siegel 1999)

This comment contains several important ideas. It first points to two non-healing states, flashbacks that merely relive episodes of violent emotion, and the numbing and dissociation that can hide these episodes. But it also points to a zone between the two undesirable states: “memories can be felt and also known to be in the past.” This sentence implies that when “in the zone,” one is both feeling an emotion and observing oneself feeling it. Such a zone might provide the feeling of safety and assurance necessary to explore all of one’s emotions, even those sensed to be overpowering or unbearably painful.

Finding a midpoint between too close and too far from emotions is at the heart of classic theories of drama. The audience must feel the emotions that are being enacted, but at the same time, must realize that they are safe in the theatre. They are neither too close, repeating their own flashbacks, nor too far, not involved. At this middle distance, these theories suggest, the audience response, such as laughing or crying, is cathartic, helping its members resolve their own unresolved emotions, whatever their origin (Scheff 1979).

Most emotion researchers assume that the theory of catharsis has been disapproved repeatedly in experiments. But these experiments all involve the acting out of anger (venting), rather than remembering anger in “moments of tranquility” (Wordsworth). The idea of a zone of healing, the reliving of unresolved emotion at the right distance, has not been precisely tested. Confounding  venting with tranquil reliving has resulted in a grossly erroneous rejection of catharsis, throwing  the baby out with the bathwater (Scheff 2007).

Out-of-Control Emotions

The passage quoted about a healing zone for fear is quite helpful in itself. Yet it also involves issues that are much broader than only healing fear: the references to raw flashbacks (too close) and to dissociation and shutting down (too far). The phrase shutting down (of all emotions) seems particularly apt for describing the experience of depression: depressed persons often describe the experience as feeling blank, empty or hollow.

How can flashbacks and numbing occur? What is known about the nature of emotions that are either inaccessible or out of control? There seem to be only a few attempts to answer this question, and they are not clear. For example, Freud’s idea of repression is relevant, since it not only concerns ideas and memories, but also emotions. Freud (1966) stated that the idea of repression was central to psychoanalysis, but “…so far we have only one piece of information, …that [it] emanates from forces of the ego.” Apart from that, Freud added, “we know nothing more at present.”

This statement conveys little, since we are not sure what forces Freud was referring to, nor for that matter, how the ego itself is to be construed. The vast significance of the concept of repression, compared to the meager amount of knowledge about it, makes an enormous gap in psychoanalytic theory.