The Importance of Feeling Pain in Depression
I was watching a news show one evening and they did a segment about a little girl named Gabby who had a rare medical condition called CIPA (congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis). This little girl could basically feel no pain. Living without feeling pain seems on the surface, as though it would be wonderful, but in fact it is shown to be much more of a curse than a blessing. This little girl's teeth had been removed by the age of two so she wouldn't hurt herself. As a baby she bit her fingers until they bled. She also had to have an eye removed because she caused injury to herself without knowing it. She has to wear protective safety glasses and be monitored at all times so she does not cause great danger to herself. You can read more about her story here on this CNN site.
Clearly, this unusual case demonstrates that we need pain to protect ourselves from danger. Pain is a warning that something is wrong. Feeling pain has saved all of us from an early demise.
I am going to extrapolate a bit and now discuss the importance of mental pain. And no I am not about to advocate for suffering. For those of us who have a mood disorder, many of us have a chemical imbalance which may cause our mood to plummet. Sometimes our moods seem to come out of the blue. There are times when I can find no great external cause for my depression. Our biology is sometimes working against us and we need help whether it is in the form of therapy or medication. I would never suggest that suffering needlessly with moods which cause dysfunction is a good idea.
But what I will say is that we needn't try to eradicate all sadness or "negative" emotions. Feeling sadness is part of what makes us human. I worry that it seems the goal has become to be happy all the time at any cost. There is very little tolerance nowadays for so called negative emotions. And I want to say that sadness in and of itself can be a very adaptive feature. We need to feel emotional pain for the same reason that we need to feel physical pain. Emotional pain can warn us that something needs to change. Emotional pain can lead us away from danger. Feeling emotional pain can also be a critical step towards our psychological growth.
I worry when I hear people ask whether they should up their medication or try something stronger because they felt a fleeting moment of sadness. In my opinion, medication should stabilize our moods so that we are able to feel more of a full range of emotion including happiness but not to the total exclusion of all sadness. There are times when it is appropriate to feel sad.
I am reminded of an old television show called Ally McBeal. I remember one episode (barely so forgive me if I don't get this right) involving a man who had a tumor or some medical issue which greatly changed his personality. His personality was actually changed for the better. Formerly a cranky bitter old man, he was now happy. Not only was he happy but he was happy all of the time and could not feel sadness. When his wife died he could not cry and so he wanted the tumor removed so that he could feel pain again. He wanted to mourn his wife.
How are we to appreciate or even feel joy if we do not first experience sadness? One means little without the other. Just try to think of a world without any sadness. There would be a whole lot of empty bookshelves as much of our poetry and literature would disappear. Many movies and films would lack depth and would lose their meaning all together. Some of the greatest works of art would no longer exist. Music including the blues...gone. Even comedy which has its roots in woe and tragedy would be forever changed and not for the better. And of course we would lose beloved Eyeore from Winnie the Pooh.
I am not trying to romanticize sadness but merely point out that we need not totally eradicate this feeling from our lives. It is more than okay to feel a little sad at times. I am worried that our culture is veering more and more in the direction of trying to make every ounce of sadness something to be extinguished. I don't really want to be happy all of the time. Happiness is fleeting. It is just a feeling like all the other feelings we have. But joy is a different matter. I believe joy can only be felt when we have experienced some pain in our life. Joy doesn't rely upon external conditions but comes from a place deep within. It comes from the appreciation of having survived and even overcoming our challenges. So how can we truly feel the depth of our emotions if our goal is to eradicate sadness so we can feel happy all of the time?
Sadness should have a place in our society and in our life. Intense suffering...no. But a little sadness now and then is appropriate for us humans. Accept it and even embrace it. Why do you think rocky road ice cream was invented?