Psychiatrist Dan Siegel once got a definition of energy from a conference of physicists: “It’s the capacity to make stuff happen.”
“Making stuff happen” is extremely important when we’re talking about depression, since depression acts primarily as a monitor and regulator of energy level. Like a nuclear power plant technician, depression goes into a hyperactive alarm mode when the levels start to dip, ringing bells and rapidly shutting down systems.
Depression keeps us from (what feels like) disaster by shutting us down when our energy gets far out of whack. Depression is attempting to regulate a system (the whole “us”) to keep it from being destroyed by an over- or underabundance of energy, of the “capacity to do stuff.”
In other words, depression would rather go into a flattened, demotivated, de-energized quality than to let us burn out. If we take on this regulatory role consciously, though, depression will take a break. If we don’t do the unavoidable job of managing the gauges and knobs, it will do it for us. We have to take conscious responsibility for our energy levels in order to prevent depression from stepping in and doing it unconsciously.
This is, of course, easier said than done, because depression doesn’t really trust us to do the job, to monitor and regulate energy, and often with good reason. If we’ve experienced overwhelming circumstances many times in our lives, we may not actually know how to regulate our energy, leaving depression with the default responsibility.
For instance, maybe a trauma around an illness that left us very weak developed the story, “I’ll never be incapacitated again!” which is triggered when our energy level drops past a certain point. Then when we have the flu, and our body is using a lot of energy to fight the invading bugs, part of us registers that dip in energy as equivalent to the earlier trauma, and panics. Then we find ourselves desperately spending energy trying to not feel that sense of weakness, in order to not feel incapacitated (the original trauma).
It’s a futile strategy, but if we’re unable to accept it (“Never again!”), depression steps in and, rightly, shuts us down.
One key point here is that while energy levels per se do not have meaning — is 20 watts more meaningful than 100 watts? — our idiosyncratic histories assign meanings to these different levels of biological and neurological energy, and then respond as if that’s what the energy actually is. (“Falling below 20 watts equals dying.”) Then the defensive mechanisms kick in to prevent us from dying, and depression imposes a “system crash” in service of survival.
So what’s to be done?
In order to disable the more-or-less automatic response of depression to energy changes, we have to do two things: one, learn to consciously regulate our energy levels, taking conscious responsibility for energy; and two, investigate the meaning of different energy levels or states, and see how changing energy is just that, meaningless at base.
The simple question, “What is my energy level right now?” is a powerful practice, bringing into focus our experience of energy as a thing, as an object of our attention. The scale we use (1-10, high-low, etc.) is not so important, but the ongoing act of measuring is. We need this basic information to make decisions accurately and precisely as we go through our lives, allowing us to focus, as appropriate, on energy conservation or energy acquisition (e.g., taking a nap, or eating a healthy meal). It may be tedious at first, but if we are not monitoring, depression gets nervous, seeing us spending money without knowing our bank balance, and may well intervene.
To learn this conscious regulation, we must experiment with how to regain or create energy.
To be better “regulators” of our own energy also requires the investigation of the supposedly obvious meaning of our energy levels, in order to see through that “obviousness” by focusing attention and curiosity onto this question of, “What does energy mean to me?”
By exploring this connection as it shows up in our bodies, we slowly free ourselves from the fused cause and effect and come to experience energy as just energy.