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Down the depressive abyss

She felt like crawling under the desk and hiding. She was alone in the room. No one was looking for her. She had no idea why she was so afraid. But she had to hide. The room was her only refuge to keep away from others, and yet, it stifled her. She gasped for breath and flailed her hands around. She sat by the sill, stuck her head out the open window, trying to work her nostrils and mouth. It was no use. Her body breathed the air, but seemed to have forgotten what to do with it. The windows, and the tree outside, were now familiar with this everyday ritual.

We all feel sad, dejected, or morose at some point in our lives. And while those feelings aren’t easy to do deal with, they’re not crippling. Some of us, though, might have to battle a whole other kind of ‘low’, to put it mildly. We’ve all heard of depression and we’re willing to empathise with those depressed. But do we really understand what it means? Can we imagine being unable to breathe, despite inhaling? Can we comprehend being fearful of nothing in particular? Can we understand not feeling hungry or sleepy for days in a row? Can we think about not wanting to wake up ever again?

Most of us are strangers to a depressed person’s hopelessness. The closest we seem to get to understanding depression is through literature and art; they help us empathise more easily. After all, nothing else comes remotely close to explaining this sad state of mind. Take Emily Dickinson’s poem I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, or Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, or Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, for instance. The poet, the writer, and the artist were known to be depressed for a major part of their lives and it reflected heavily in their works.

But that’s not all these three creative giants had in common. Dickinson had a reputation for hiding behind the door from neighbours and communicating only through letters. Plath rarely ever left her home, often masking her isolation with wifely and motherly duties. Munch spent several decades at a time in solitude, giving his works an “obsessional introverted-ness” as many art critics observe. Apparently, Dickinson was a classic hermit, Plath a compulsive recluse and Munch a pensive eremite. They were introverts, who preferred least amount of human contact, but continued sharing their work with the world, albeit (almost) invisibly.

Introverts’ minds are particularly easy baits to depression, as they’d be highly inclined to withdraw themselves from socialising.

As for depression, there’s no saying when or how exactly it knocks on the door. And if you’re an introvert, you’d rather pretend you’re not home, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, depression is quite the expert burglar that can easily creep into a person’s psyche. Introverts’ minds are particularly easy baits to depression, as they’d be highly inclined to withdraw themselves from socialising. Observes psychologist Anna Chandy, “Unlike extroverts who feel energised when they socialise, introverts expend their energy when they engage with people. Hence, introverts have that innate need to physically withdraw and replenish their mental energy.”

Experts like Chandy have further gauged that isolation worsens the state of depression. Of course, this apparent connection between introversion and depression is currently up for debate. However, mental health professionals are increasingly interested in exploring how personality traits and mental illnesses can have a deep correlation. Clinical psychologist Dr Andrew Solomon, in his Ted Talk Depression, The Secret We Share, speaks about how difficult it is to understand depression. According to him, it’s braided so deep into us that there’s no separating it from our character and personality.

Naturally, introversion has come under the microscope, as it seems to be a factor in several cases of depression. Writer Susan Cain, for instance, explores the psychology and physiology of introverts extensively in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Going through various studies, she found that extroverts are highly responsive to dopamine, and introverts less so. Apparently, extroverts tend to be reward-driven, and introverts thought-driven.

While an introvert’s introspective mind can get them to notice subtleties that most others miss, it can also intensify their own negative thoughts and emotions.

According to Dr B N Gangadhar, director of National Institute of Mental Health & Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), this thought-driven tendency could play a role in depression. He says, “There aren’t enough studies to fully establish the correlation between personality and mental illnesses. However, it’s a known fact that overthinking increases the stress hormone. Cortisol, as we know, adversely affects brain functions, putting one at risk for mental disorders.” He suggests that introverts may have higher levels of cortisol than extroverts, because they are deep thinkers, and may therefore be more likely to fall into depression.

Dr Gangadhar also points out that introverts are generally more aware of their internal self. “They’re good at identifying their own depressive state, simply because they’re habitually introspective,” he observes. Sure enough, introverted writers and artists seem highly aware of their depressed state of mind, and oddly fond of it. Plath once wrote in her journal: “I am a victim of introspection.” Munch once said, “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder … my sufferings are part of my self and my art.”

It’s as Dr Solomon points out in his Ted Talk. Many times, when depressed introverts express themselves, their words sound like insight, rather than illness. Enigmatically enough, Dickinson, Plath, and Munch seem to have been inspired by their depression. Yet, in the end, that very depression took their lives. So, while an introvert’s introspective mind can get them to notice subtleties that most others miss, it can also intensify their own negative thoughts and emotions.

With no solid explanation to bank on, it’s rather hard to understand the dynamics of introverted personality trait and mental illnesses. One thing’s certain though: Introversion suits depression. It’s a strange love-hate relationship they share. Deep introspection can be a classic double-edged sword for introverts; they’ll need to wield it carefully.

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