December 2020 – Self-Regulation: The Whats and Hows (Depression Primer #4)
I hope that your Thanksgiving went well (all things about these times considered), and that in an incredibly difficult year, you have been able to keep, more or less, your footing. Which is a thought that is apropos to the topic for this newsletter, continuing on with the theme of basic issues regarding depression (following on from the previous ones on gratitude, experimentation, and futility), this article will focus on the nature of “self-regulation,” and its centrality to depression and depression’s healing. It’s a big topic, arguably the most important in understanding, but I’m hoping this gives you a sense of the terrain.
Here’s to wishing an entry into the new year characterized by poise and equanimity.
Self-Regulation: The Whats and Hows (Depression Primer #4)
In the previous newsletter (link), I discussed self-regulation from the perspective of “futility,” i.e., what happens when we have a goal that cannot be met but also cannot be let go of. But what is self-regulation per se?
Any system more complex than a rock, with more than one moving part, needs to somehow keep itself from dissolving into goo, or moving so fast it self-combusts. For instance, I had a bad gardening period once where I couldn’t keep my cacti from getting an infection that manifested as rot. The poor plants kept literally melting. Then on the other side, I had a car as a teenager that, unbeknownst to me, had lost its cooling fluid, and finally notified me of the problem through the language of smoke and melted rubbers and plastics. A living system is vastly more complex than a car, but still, both need to be able to maintain a sweet spot, a homeostasis zone where the various parts continue to interrelate to keep the system going as defined: “continued living” and “functional as transport,” in these examples.
Human bodies, and then human minds, and then human mind-bodies—these are almost unfathomable in their complexity, yet still they must mind the law of continuity (“don’t cease function in time,” or colloquially, “die”), and the law of coherency (“parts shouldn’t turn into goo or combust”). This requires a good enough cooperation of the parts of the system (the liver shouldn’t try to do the spleen’s job), a good enough maintenance of the boundary with the outside world (no toxins or invaders), without being too rigid in that boundary (needs to balance openness/relation and closedness/protection). That we as sentient creatures are able to walk two steps without puddle-izing, or bursting into flames, is really astounding when you think of it.
Which makes it of little surprise that, with the number of things that can go wrong increasing proportionally with a system’s complexity, we have something like depression wired into us. Not that depression per se is wrong, as it has an important evolutionary function: it is a backup system that regulates our body-minds when we can’t get out of our own way. That is, under the condition of futile, unrealizable goals, if we cannot surrender the goal (because it is too important to our self-esteem), then under the threat of burning ourselves out with futile energy expenditure, depression steps in and yanks the cord out of the socket. Everything shuts down, and self-regulation is restored, not defined in terms of happiness, but in terms of simple survival.
Basically, the critical thing to hold onto is this: If we don’t self-regulate, depression will do it for us.
Self-regulation—the balancing of forces and parts of the body-mind—is not optional, ever. There’s not a time when we can go on autopilot and have things work out well. Life is always changing and requires our ongoing attention and decision making (conscious and subconscious), and if that stops, it means we have died. It may seem kind of self-evident, but there’s something very profound about this fact of living, about the essential unending call for our dynamic participation in life that we can easily lose track of in the day-to-day mundanity.
But regardless of how deep we want to contemplate the philosophical implications of self-regulation (and healing depression seems to have more to do with philosophy then we tend to think), the more proximate requirement, for those who suffer from depression, is to learn intentional ways of regulating our system (mental, physical and relational) that lean away rather than into depression. Especially when we have become habituated to depression (e.g., in the face of resistance from the world, stop trying), we have to unlearn those habits, and learn new ones that don’t trigger and maintain depression.
Which is hard.
And that blunt fact of “hardness” is a good way of understanding why simplified therapies don’t work, in that they don’t recognize how deep the problem goes. Self-regulation is utterly basic to living, and depression can be understood as what happens when self-regulation goes awry. (Hanging On and Letting Go, by Pyszcynski and Greenberg, is a somewhat technical, but crucial unpacking of depression from a self-regulation lens.) You can’t fix a systemic problem with a topical salve, and when you try (medication only, “positive thinking” only, exercise only, etc.), your system will soon enough get out of whack again and then you’ll be worse off than before.
So then, in relation to self-regulation, what we need to do is train (a previous article, “Trained or Untrained–Depression Is Healed by Our Work,” details this more), and specifically, learn what behavior contributes to depression, which doesn’t, and put energy and work towards the latter. This requires becoming more expert both on this 800 pound gorilla of mood, and studying your own particular experience of that gorilla. That is not easy, and takes time and effort…which of course can be depressing. But the irony is that one of the biggest futile goals that has to be given up to progress in depression healing is the goal of an easy fix. That one in particular sinks a lot of people (“destroys effective self-regulation”), because many of us carry a belief that if something is hard, it’s our fault and failing.
So, in order to keep this discussion brief (there are a lot of thoughts and suggestions about the particulars of “training” in my other articles, just poke around here), I’ll leave this as a pointer and encouragement to give consideration and study to the issue of self-regulation. When we take our self-regulation for granted, and run on a kind of autopilot without consideration and intentionality about our choices, it works fine…until we run into something the autopilot doesn’t recognize, and then we are quite likely to crash in one way or another.
Depression is, of course, one of the more popular ways of crashing, and again, if we don’t have our hands on the wheel, paying attention and making intentional choices, depression is more than happy to take up the driver’s seat for us.