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An excerpt from
A Relentless Hope:
Surviving the Storm of Teen Drepression
By Gary E. Nelson,
published by Cascade Books
Learn More! Get A Relentless Hope here:


Irritability and reactive anger, even rage, are part of the struggle for many depressed youth. It feels like more little things bother them, and bigger things bother them even more. In other words, little things that another might shrug off and say, “What’s the big deal?” register as irritation on the screen of the depressed teen. In some ways the depressed teen feels very little. They’re numb. In other ways they feel too much.

Remember the last outing to the beach when you spent too much time having fun in the sun and baked yourself to a crisp? You went inside, showered, and changed. Then, that first moment you stepped back into the sun you experienced a real awakening. Gentle sunlight fell upon your skin. Normally you might welcome it as a comfortable experience. Now, with freshly charbroiled skin, you greet the same gentle sunlight with shrieks of pain. Suddenly the gentle rays feel like a blowtorch glowing red hot against your skin. You feel the same sunlight as before the sunburn, but with the sunburn you feel it so much that it’s intensely painful. Feeling that kind of pain, you scream, yell, run for the car, or do whatever else is possible to avoid the painful sunrays.

Relentless Hope

Gary Nelson has recently produced a short video about teen depression. Click to view this video on YouTube.

This sunburn analogy is one way of grasping the idea that teens fighting depression feel some things too much. That’s why they seem to over react to the same stimuli experienced by others. They are not really “over reacting.” They are actually trying to deal with an intensity of feeling that others are not experiencing. The teens are suffering from “emotional sunburns.” They feel too much and respond out of their pain in ways that are sometimes inappropriate and hurtful. Before going on, let’s stretch the sunburn analogy just a little further.

Suppose you’re in that parking lot with the sunburn, you make the mad dash for your car to avoid the pain, and accidentally step on the toe of a stranger standing nearby as you race for relief. The stranger might not take the time to put all the pieces together and figure, “Ah, they must have a whopper of a sunburn and are trying to get out of the sun. I’ll try to be understanding and not get upset with them.” No, there’s a better chance that in that squished-toe moment the stranger will wince with pain, and shout something through clenched teeth like, “You jerk!” or worse.

“I’m sorry,” you might cry over your shoulder as you close the car door. Your glance at the stranger shows the offered apology fell on a deaf ear and you wonder to yourself, “Why don’t they realize I was hurting and only trying to get away from the pain? Why don’t they realize my stepping on their toe was an accident? I would never “try” to hurt them. I’m not that kind of person!”

You see the point, don’t you? When teens begin to feel the effects of the depression and sometimes react in strange ways to deal with the pain, their actions can often be more reflexive than planned and consequently misinterpreted. They react to the pain by either trying to avoid it completely, or getting away from it once it’s struck. In the process they might accidentally hurt others around them. The others might easily think the teen “meant” to hurt them. If we’re not careful and observant, we might be too quick to cry, “You jerk!” as the teen runs to their sanctuary and slams the door behind them. 

This heightened intensity from the illness can amplify other feelings in addition to irritability and anger. It can also amplify sadness, loneliness, and anxiety, just to name a few. This extra intensity leads to that feeling of being overwhelmed that I’ve mentioned before. Depressed and anxious teens are easily overwhelmed. Things that would not trigger a similar response in others set off a powerful feeling of being overwhelmed in depressed teens. That feeling of being overwhelmed is not a very comfortable experience. Do you remember the last time you felt it? Didn’t it make you want to get rid of it somehow? Didn’t you want to run for the car when you had the sunburn?

When a depressed teen feels overwhelmed they don’t normally say to them selves, “Hmm, I think I’m feeling overwhelmed.” In fact, one of the goals of therapy with depressed teens is to help them consciously identify the feeling of being overwhelmed and take healthy steps to respond. However, before they’ve been educated about their illness, the depressed teens just know they feel something very uncomfortable and want to escape its hold. They do whatever they can to rid themselves of the feeling.

We call that act of trying to avoid or rid them selves of the painful feeling a “defense.” Their favorite defense might be that flash of anger, or withdrawal, some sort of shutdown, or some other form of escape like alcohol or other drugs. It’s not a rational, thought out process. The depressed teens just do it, because somehow it makes them feel better in the moment (just like you dashed for the car and stepped on the stranger’s toe.) A shutdown is another form of defense. The shutdown is often the depressed teen’s preferred response to feeling overwhelmed by school and homework.

Here’s how the shutdown defense might go. The teen “zones out” or has difficulty concentrating in class. They miss a lot of the explanations for the homework. They go home and open the book. Then they start to realize they may not know how to do the work, or they may understand it, but it feel like there is so much homework that they will never be able to finish. The response then is usually, “I’ll never be able to finish all of this. It will take forever, so why bother.” They close the book, lie about doing the work when quizzed by a parent, and go off to school to repeat the process the next day.

Eventually the depressed doesn’t even bother to look at the book. They just “know” it will be overwhelming, so why bother. By the time a report card makes it home, the student is already in a deep, deep hole that further intensifies that sense of being overwhelmed. They continue to practice their defense on a daily basis because it momentarily keeps them from feeling that awful sense of being overwhelmed.

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