depression and the power of language

depression is a state of subtraction, says catatonic kid,

depression is not an approachable thing. it seems, in fact, to be precisely the opposite. it has a power to repel that is apparently so strong that it stops our mouths before we have even thought to speak of all that runs through its dark night.


there are barriers around the whole experience of depression, and that’s unfortunate because it means we don’t have language, yet, for the most common states of it. it’s like the apocryphal story of how very many words eskimos have for snow…

in this cross-blog conversation with catanonic kid, maybe we can break down the barriers, make it more approachable.

wordwide, depression is the leading cause of disability and the 4th leading contributor to the global burden of disease, affecting 121 million people altogether. we better find a few words for it!

and we do have words. a sample from catatonic kid and her commenters

a grey wash over everything, a strange and fuzzy cloud, a bell jar, an emotional topper, a thick wall between the individual and the rest of the world …

depression is a barren space, a shore that no-one wants to swim to. i understand that so well. i feel contagious when I am so sickened. i would not want this awful mind to be visited by even the worst people…

a shapeless mess

in a previous post, i observed how words of numbness and emptiness are most common among people who describe depression.

the point i see is that – these are words.  maybe words that we don’t like, maybe words that describe something that makes us feel uncomfortable, but they are valid nevertheless. and i belong to those who think that language, meaningful language, can be a tool in dealing with depression. by leaving depression in the darkness of wordlessness, i give it more power; like a wet rag left in a warm kitchen, this darkness is a perfect breeding ground for dis-ease.

meaningful language. meaningful language is powerful language. ever been to a workshop where the facilitator writes on a flipchart? know that irritable feeling when they re-interpret your words (you say “brother” and they write “sibling”; you say “joyful” and they write “positive”) and, conversely, the great feeling when you see your own words?

i think it’s the same with depression (and with any mental illness, and, indeed any experience).

let’s find, express, use and stand up for our own words for depression. whatever they may be. numb? bleak? empty? what’s wrong with those words? darkness. dust. suffocation. “paralysis” is a word that happens to fit my personal experience with depression.

the more we can use these words, the more we invigorate our own experience, the less helpless we need to feel when it seems that others want to engulf us with their language – the language of those who are well-meaning but really don’t understand the experience, or the language of the overprofessionalized DSM-IV. why accept a word like “anhedonia” if it doesn’t fit the bill? it’s like letting your pharmacist name your cat. (that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t use those words, too – but i don’t think they’re enough.)

when we are right in the depression, perhaps at first we cannot take charge like that. however, when there are recurring episodes of depression, we learn, over time, to pick up some tools, and train ourselves in more powerful times to respond in helpful ways when the depression hits again.

and language, many say, is the most powerful tool ever invented by humans. why not use it?


  1. I think changing your language is a huge part of changing yourself.

    I always say (to negative and depressed people) “you speak impossible, while I speak possible”.

    It’s just focusing on the possible positive outcomes. Being negative prevents you from moving by piling up barriers to what is possible (paralysis!).

    Joshua’s last blog post..Big Jason vs. John Chow

  2. We absolutely must express our feelings in our own words. Our words are are feelings verbalized. We choose them sometimes carefully and other times out of the overwhelming helplessnes that oozes out only through our frustrated lips.

    However we should also realize that by changing our words we can begin to change our thoughts and then our words and then a little more of our thoughts. It’s a cycle one that ultimately only we control. Yes we may need help but until we are willing to ask for and accept help we won’t get relief.

  3. Aw, language. I have learned that language is one of the most important keys to beating depression. What we say to ourselves and about ourselves is crucial. We could be physically doing all the right things but if we are not thinking or saying the right things, it’s like a monkey driving a Ferrari. Our body may be in shape but our mind is not driving it. We are nowhere near our destination. We can spend billions on a nice space shuttle but we need an astronaut to navigate it to the moon. Our language is the driver and the astronaut in both pictures.

    Think the right thoughts, speak the right words and the mind and heart will follow. It’s absolutely astounding.

    merri ellen – cure depression writings’s last blog post..Sep 3, Suffer From Sleep Apnea Depression?

  4. Excellent example of changing the words for a flip chart or in session-I realized that my training to become a therapist has even TAUGHT me to do that and the negative effect it must sometimes have….I need to be more conscious of making the changing of language a collaborative process rather than me pushing it on them.

    Kara’s last blog post..Thursday Thirteen

  5. It’s funny how I’ve really learned to change how I use language. I used to be far more abusive to myself, all in the guise of humor and sarcasm. I think it’s really essential to speak kindly to myself as much as possibile, and I certainly don’t laugh any less.

  6. The words to describe depression for me.

    A numbness that aches, crying for I don’t know why, heart-ache, a bruised heart.

    I do think that something happens when we express our depression (and other emotional experience) to others. This is my experience anyway.

    Evan’s last blog post..Two New Pages

  7. thanks for all the great comments so far!

    @joshua the challenge with thinking positive is that this seems to be a thinking pattern that is severely impaired during depression. in fact, thinking, period, is impaired. actually, this would be something to write about in a future post: how thinking and language interrelate, especially during depression.

    @sean i like how you describe the cycle of changing words and thoughts. at some point, action will come into the cycle, too, right?

    @kara hmmm … you say something about being collaborative here that rings very true; for example, how can people with mental health issues help their health professionals become more collaborative?

    @marc i have had exactly the same experience. i used to be a master of sarcasm and just loved my wit. now i’m less witty and more kind 🙂

    @evan yes, something happens when we express our experiences. again, material for another blog post: what EXACTLY happens?

  8. These are incredible. In credit able. Words are difficult, and the change within without.
    They can be a paintbrush to paint a new hope, or a box to cling to, to help or to hinder. I like the comments here.
    Then there is faith, the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. The Bible says that they are powerful, and to chose wisely, to paraphrase, it is a choice. David commands his soul that is charges his thoughts and being to to have corage and strength etc. The Living Word. There is allot about words. We can stand on them or sink by them, and changing them for positive is professing the path.

    When you are depressed though, your being changes and it’s context as well as wellbeing and there seems to be few words to round up to express what is going on and who you are and unclear. A chemical imballance, that we try to credit to verbs. Even depression can be an adjective or a noun and what you are going though, not who you are . It is as individualized as much the words to discribe it are diversified, and universal, like music and math, but the feelings to be expressed are often depressed too and not expressive of the self that is lost and needs to be found, nor those that watch like has been written so appropo by the others …but it doesn’t feel that way and when a kind , loving and sincere word comes your way, what a difference, huh!? When it comes finally from within, and with things like this, thanks to isabella, it’s a word that can be expressed and heard. Compassion. Therapy. Expression. Did you ever feel so invisible in your depression that you not only didn’t know you, but you felt like you were in the way, like you were standing infront of someone elses cue cards and in their way!? As I have said before, in another area, is the patch worked for me, and the depth that we can look at is which way to go from here, and not stay within it and find comfort in that over chosing to not talk about it to move on.
    So much to say! Use your words as stepping stones in direction.

  9. I wrote this as a girl, this may say it better.


  10. You know a couple of things occur to me – one is that when you give something or someone a label, often they begin to take on the characteristics of that label. I meet a whole heap of people who are labelled by someone else as depressed, who then choose to apply that label to themselves.

    Depression is a really serious problem and it’s made increasingly worse by giving people that label, when in many cases this makes them worse.

    The second thing that occurs to me is that for many people, depression is their choice. Just as for other people happiness is their choice. When you truly understand this concept, you will find the power within you to make changes and become happy.

  11. I follow CK’s posts, so I know what you are referring to, but it dawns on me that depression is often spoken about in terms of metaphor which removes us from the actual feeling. The more specific I get with the feelings under my depression the less power depression has. When I’m vague and distant from it, it remain elusive. I also am finding out that much of my depression is a defense against those feeling which I do not want to own…sigh…and I thought being depressed was bad enough…the feelings and things I am defending against are worse!! One tiny step at a time.

  12. @suzanne, i really like the idea of stepping stones!

    @dan, you (and someone else here, too, i believe) use the word “labeling”. it would be interesting to look into the nuances of difference between the idea of “labeling” and the idea of “naming”.

    at first glance, i’d say that “labeling” can be a superficial act – think of the idea of “slapping a label on something”. the notion of pigeonholing arises, as well.

    “naming”, on the other hand, has a much more thoughtful ring to it. it is, perhaps, the end result of reflecting on the object to be named. the idea of naming a child comes up for me.

    is it just semantics?

    i’m not sure that depression is a choice. depression often has a biochemical /genetic aspect to it. to say that depression is a choice can be a bit like saying colour blindness is a choice.

    how to DEAL with depression, well, that’s a different matter.

    @clinically clueless – i like the idea of getting very specific, and bringing up the use of metaphors. that’s a tricky one. sometimes metaphors are the closest we can get to accurately describing a situation, and sometimes it can be a bit of a copout. what a challenge to figure out which is which!

  13. “Labelling” and “naming” have different connotations to me.

    I’ve seen people who suffer under the yoke of someone else’s label – letting it define them in some kind of incontrovertible way, losing their autonomy and agency to heal.

    I’ve also experienced the power of naming something, owning it, getting clarity and tasting the truth of it.

    Traditionally, naming something gives you power over it.

    I’ve also experienced someone else naming something in me and having that same experience – so it’s not who names it.

    One difference seems to be if you identify with the thing you are naming.

    If you think “I am a depressed *person*” – that depression somehow defines *you* or your potential to be – that is awful. I wonder if this happens mostly when “authority” decides on the name and its meaning – that is, gives a diagnosis.

    Diagnosis means “identifying the nature or cause of some phenomenon”.

    When you diagnose someone as “depressed”, and they decide that *they* are the nature or cause of their depression – that is not so good. And not true.

    Naming isn’t the same as diagnosis. Naming says the true nature of a thing. It says that depression is depression. That it is NOT you, it is NOT your nature – it is something separate and apart from your true nature. That is when naming is powerful – when it reflects something true and lets you know a thing.

    Perhaps for catatonic kid, “speechlessness” is a true name for her depression, and thus powerful for her.

    Perhaps not for you – not for me, I’ve often been quite eloquent about the mess in my brain. =)

    I agree with your idea that it’s important to find our own names for things – to name our own truth and legitimize it.

    Emma McCreary’s last blog gina

  14. Another good cure for depression is to try working towards something you want in life. Anything worthwhile takes work and if you work towards what you want, you can tell yourself you did something to achieve a goal and that makes you feel better.

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