by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.
Depression and substance use often co-exist. Substance use is a common method of coping with depression. Thus, abruptly stopping the use of substances can result in the intensification of underlying depression. It is important to have a specific understanding of what your personal experience of depression is in order to overcome it.
Depression is often understood to be a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. While this understanding is certainly true, it is only part of the story. The problem with understanding depression solely as a chemical imbalance in the brain is that it reinforces feelings of helplessness – a cornerstone of depression. The truth is, the antidote to depression is indeed something that we have a tremendous amount of personal control over.
Viktor Frankl offered a simple but profound formula for depression: Despair equals suffering without meaning (D = S-M). Without a reason to persevere through adversity, feelings of hurt and sadness can intensify into clinical depression. Continuing on a path of adversity and struggle feels pointless without a purpose.
The human mind seeks meaning. When meaning is found in suffering depression does not disappear, but it almost instantly feels endurable. Frankl offered three primary sources for meaning in human existence; creative works, experiences, and our attitude towards what we cannot control. Consider the meaning experienced by a scientist creating a new, effective treatment for an ailment, or a climber scaling Denali. Frankl cultivated an attitude of meaning even when all other freedoms were taken from him. He endured over 10 years in concentration camps in WWII and the belief that his experience could help and inspire others gave him a reason to endure the worst of conditions. When a concrete reason is identified to endure the discomfort that comes from stopping substance use people are more likely to succeed.
Some people find meaning in enduring the discomfort of abstinence because it sets an example of perseverance for a loved one. Others find the discomfort of abstinence meaningful because it proves their own freedom to themselves. Whatever it is, finding a reason to endure the discomfort of change can be a major turning point in recovery. The best antidote to anxiety is said to be oxygen, and one might argue that the best antidote to depression is meaning.