Is This a Depression Rebound?

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Reader’s Question

Someone I was in love with for over a year visited me yesterday. I had long given up hope, but last night we kissed. I don’t recall ever feeling so happy, not necessarily because I still had feelings for him, but because something I had wanted for such a long time had finally happened. This was the first time I’d ever kissed someone whom I’d had such deep feelings for.

Today he left, and at first I still felt excellent. I went around telling all my friends, with absolute glee.

Then over the course of the day, my thoughts started to turn from the fact that this wonderful thing happened, to the fact that it will probably never happen again — he practically said as much. I was fine with it at the time, but now, the evening after, I don’t feel good about it at all. I’m still happy and grateful it happened, but all I can think about is that this one experience I had waited so long for is over, and I’ve felt depressed all afternoon.

It seems to me that this always happens; days when I am extremely happy are almost always followed by days when I’m depressed. With my secondary school level of neuroscience, I came up with a theory that makes sense of it to me: Happiness is caused by endorphins — a change in the balance of neurotransmitters free in the brain. After whatever caused the happiness is gone, the chemicals return to normal levels.

Does this then cause a comedown similar to what people experience after taking drugs? I feel like my depression now is a rebound effect caused by my happiness earlier. Is that it? Am I basically coming off drugs I produced naturally?

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like a good theory but I imagine there is more to it than that. Many people like to think that human behavior and emotions are controlled solely by our brain chemistry but research has shown that it is not so simple. Nature and nurture are not independent factors, but are instead closely intertwined; so much so that you really cannot tease out one from the other.

For example, they’ve found that people who have endured a great trauma have what’s called a “trauma tattoo” on their brains. In other words, something that happened to them (nurture) affected their bodies (nature). This “tattoo” (nature) then impacts their emotions and behavior, which then changes their environments (nurture). So, what we end up with is a circular loop. It would be easier to blame our feelings on brain chemistry because then you would always know what to expect (like in your theory) and you would not be held responsible for your actions. But that just isn’t the case.

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Some of the letdown you experienced may have come from a physiological correction. When we build an event up to such great heights, we simply cannot sustain the anticipation, excitement or positive emotion for long. Such intense emotion takes a lot of energy and it simply cannot be maintained for any length of time. At some point, our emotional equilibrium must be ‘corrected’ and returned to normal levels. There is nothing wrong with this but, as you noted, the letdown is not very fun.

In order to help avoid such a huge physiological correction, it might be helpful to moderate your expectations a bit. Many people latch onto something that they think will change their life, an interaction that will become the be-all and end-all of their existence. However, when this event at last occurs, they realize that it was not all that they thought it would be and, consequently, feel let down. Moreover, they then feel at a loss because their goal has been reached and they don’t know what to do next. They are kind of like the ancient king Alexander the Great who, in his 20s, conquered most of the existing world. Legend has it that Alexander wept because he had no more worlds to conquer.

Perhaps that is what happened to you as well. Once this grand event occurred, you had nothing else to which you aspired. Combine that with the physiological correction, and you have a depression rebound. Whenever that occurs, the best thing to do is weather the storm of depression and decide on new goals. To live is to change, so keep growing and you may find that great happiness again.

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