Margaret Wehrenberg Psy.D.

Depression Management Techniques

High Energy Depression: Not Uncommon, Not Uncurable

Being a human doing, instead of a human being, reinforces depression.

Posted Jan 12, 2019

Are you depressed, but also high energy? If you think depression means lethargy, you would not be wrong, but not all depressions are alike. In this case I am not discussing the person genetically pre-disposed to depression (often needing medication) nor the person with lethargic or suicidal depression. Some depression occurs in people with abundant energy, and often develops as a defense against negative life experiences.

How can it be depression when it is not lethargy?

There are different causes and symptoms of depression. And people may develop depression even when they are, by nature, highly active. But for some, the high activity masks depression even to themselves. See, most depressions have thought habits or themes about how people contemplate themselves. Most often the themes are:

  • I am inadequate to change myself or my situation.
  • I am worthless.

However, when the depression does not come with physical lethargy, the high activity person can avoid those themes by over-focusing on being productive. Why does this work? It begins with distraction from feeling inadequate, i.e., “I can get a lot done, see?” And when some feels worthless, e.g., not feeling loved or important, then importance and worth derive from feeling useful. If people have the health and mental capacity to be constantly busy with things they decide are important (or at least productive), the habit of busyness develops into a defense against depressed thinking themes.

The energy is almost always used to ‘get it done’, whatever ‘it’ may be: housework, childcare, projects, volunteering or work at the job. Typically, though, getting it done is not about having fun or relaxing. It is about productivity. Avoiding negative thoughts by focus on productivity relieves the pain of depression. And pain relief via high activity becomes a self-reinforcing hook that makes it hard to shake off depression, even while it makes depression worse due to reduced fun or social connection, and increased exhaustion.

How is anxiety related to this?

Many people who have crossover anxiety/depression fall into the category of being depressed but highly active. A common link between anxiety and depression is ruminating. Rumination is the mental habit of thinking over and over about something without any clear resolution. It is a hallmark of both disorders. People with anxiety worry – they ruminate – and when they are depressed, the worries relate strongly to the mental themes of inadequacy and worthlessness. Being busy helps a person avoid ruminating about the aspects of their life that make them feel that way. Anxious minds tend to be active – and ruminating becomes intense. So, the high energy person can find activities that focus repetitive thinking tasks, not on negative thoughts.

Refocusing on activity is not necessarily bad until the activity blocks healthful balance in life. Work replaces every other activity – social time, family time, exercise or relaxation, and even sex. But the activity level creates problems if the person is blocked from working due to being laid off, being injured or losing a relationship, e.g., divorce, kids go to college, or the person you have been care-taking at home goes into a nursing facility. Without work to fill time, the high energy depressed person can plunge rapidly into anxiety or despair because there are no other activities with which to balance negative ruminations.

What does this kind of depression look like?

  • If you cannot tolerate quiet spaces or tolerate social time without background anxiety about what you are not getting done.
  • If you cannot make time to rest unless you feel exhaustion overcoming you (temporarily, of course, until you build up enough steam to get back at ‘it’)
  • If you are likely to act on the idea, “If I work more, I will not notice feel depressed.”
  • If you think or remark, “I work instead of have a life.” You value yourself for being productive (you are!) and you pray that others will value you for productivity.
  • If being sick is hard to admit to or give in to, because it means you are not valuable. Even more, you suspect you are probably not feeling enough to give in. Others may think you are inadequate.

So what can you do about this?

The dilemma here is that if you just decide to take a day off, you will end up feeling worse. It is a good idea to treat this as if it were work addiction, which it may be or may become. In the case of work addiction, abstinence from work is not possible.

If you are avoiding depression by high activity – homemaker, salaried professional or hourly worker who takes every minute of overtime, community volunteer, or student with constant extra-curricular activities – then it is necessary to do two things

  1. Reduce the ruminating on inadequacy or worthlessness.
  2. Gradually cut down on the work time.

Start with admitting this is a problem, then...:

  • Find one thing that you still enjoy doing that is not work – it does not matter if it is active, but it ought to be just for fun. So running, albeit very good for you, may not be the best choice because it is possible that running fits the productivity mode. But if you have abandoned exercise, then that may be the right choice. Even better, choose something that may have a social component: watching football with friends, spend a couple of hours on the ski slope or at a beach, or join the neighborhood book club.
  • Find something that nurtures your soul. Consider options: go to yoga, go back to church, sing in the community choir, play a musical instrument with a group or even by yourself, meditate, read, get creative with art, knitting, cooking.
  • Set a goal to achieve balance. Plan to work one hour less in a day (start with one day and gradually move to every day) and substitute the fun or soul-nurturing activity. Then work 2 hours less per day, and then work toward balance with 30% of your waking* time devoted to non-work activity.

(*I will discuss sleep in another blog, but everyone, even high activity depressed people need it.)

As you correct the balance in your life, substituting positive experiences and thoughts for negativity-avoiding work, you will discover antidotes for feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.

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