The three deadly emotions of anger, fear, and guilt—and their uncanny ability to fuel one another—are nearly always present to some degree in the hearts and minds of people suffering from depression.
It is difficult to say which comes first—runaway deadly emotions or depression. But in any case, they have a proven and powerfully negative influence on one another. If you are prone to depression for other reasons, these toxic feelings will rob you of the natural resilience you need to keep or regain your balance.
Lasting healing is simply not possible when unexamined and untended anger, guilt, and fear smolder beneath the surface of your life. They will undermine any progress made on other fronts—such as nutrition, sleep, and exercise—and place a hard limit on what’s possible.
We won’t come any closer to healing depression forever if we simply brand anger, guilt, and fear as undesirable and attempt to bury them away. Like many dangerous things, even emotions that can have such a deadly effect on mental and physical health may also play a positive role in our lives. There are two sides to every coin. In this case, the trick is in seeing the fundamental difference between the side of our emotions that leads to the darkness of depression and the side that is healthy and life-giving.
The key to understanding lies in the word power.
The immediate result of runaway and deadly anger, guilt, and fear is not depression; it is a sense of powerlessness—the belief that you have no control over the circumstances of your life. This is the soil in which depression grows.
But is it possible for those same emotions to lead to empowerment instead? Yes, it is. In fact, that’s the purpose of proper and balanced emotions—even heated ones like anger, guilt, and fear. They are meant to guide us into thoughts and actions that make life better.
For example, there are times when anger is not only appropriate but positively beneficial. That’s because anger—like pain—is a signal that something is not right in your environment. Something important needs your attention. Anger motivates us to:
• Correct what needs correcting, in the world and in ourselves
• Set and keep personal boundaries
• Defend ourselves when threatened
• Stand up for others in need of help
• Lend our voice to important issues in the life of our community
Likewise, there are two types of guilt—self-correcting and self-loathing. The first occurs naturally when you recognize you’ve made a mistake. It’s a spontaneous emotional signal that you need to make amends and give thought to avoiding the same mistake in the future. The second type of guilt—self-loathing—is the kind that contributes to depression. Rather than encouraging introspection and self-improvement, it results in a generalized feeling of unworthiness. That’s not something we know how to correct, so it lingers and grows until it stops being about something we may have done and becomes a statement on who we are: worthless. Combine that with other common ingredients, and you’ve got a recipe for depression. Appropriate anger is the warning light on the dashboard of our lives, alerting us to the need for action.
Then same goes for fear. If you are walking alone through a darkened parking lot at night in a rough neighborhood, a dose of fear-induced adrenaline is a very helpful asset. It sharpens your senses and reflexes, preparing you to fight or flee, should it become necessary. But what happens when fear (or anger or guilt) becomes a way of life—no longer a momentary response to specific dangers but a constant, low-level tension? In that case, this emotion has exactly the opposite effect, with all sorts of physical and emotional consequences—including depression.
As you set out to be free of depression forever, it’s important to start with an honest and open look at how runaway feelings may be a large part of the problem and to be reassured that you are not simply stuck in emotional limbo. Here are five ways to get you started on the right path:
1. Accept that anger, guilt, and fear may be making you ill (emotionally and/or physically). Research abounds on this subject. Educate yourself on the myriad negative effects that chronic toxic emotions have on your well-being. Take responsibility for the fact that these impacts are, to a large degree, self-inflicted—so long as you leave your emotions untended and unmended.
2. Examine the source of your anger, guilt, and fear. In your journal write, “I am angry because . . . ,” and write in as many reasons as you can. Don’t try to filter your responses. Be honest, and let them flow. Now do the same thing again: “I feel guilty because . . .” “I feel afraid because . . .” By the time you are done with this exercise, you’ll have created an emotional map of the hot spots in your life—thoughts, beliefs, and memories that need your attention if you hope to be well.
3. Be willing to let go and feel something else. Sounds simple and easy, but it’s not! This takes practice and persistence. The truth is, powerful emotion is addictive. Your body develops a strong dependence on the chemicals that flood your bloodstream in response to certain feelings. We cling to them because we receive a counterproductive “pay-off” by letting them run free. So at this stage in your recovery, it’s important to make a firm decision that you will confront this pattern of behavior and replace it with something else. Again, open your journal and write, “I am tired of feeling angry (guilty, fearful) all the time because _____. I’d rather feel _____ instead.”
4. Give yourself and others permission to be “only” human. A key source of runaway anger, guilt, and fear is trying to live up to standards that are unrealistic—and expecting others to do the same. People are fallible, yourself included! As a person of faith, I am convinced that God loves us all and doesn’t hold our failings against us. You’ll take a major step in the direction of healing by following God’s lead and lightening up on yourself and others.
5. Seek out professional help. When beginning the process of taming the bramble of old and thorny emotions in yourself, talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can provide exactly the tools you need to succeed. Using these techniques or others, a compassionate counselor can show you all the ways your emotions have turned into maladapted behaviors and habits so that you are more able to choose another way to be.
Adapted from Healing Depression for Life: The Personalized Approach that Offers New Hope for Lasting Relief by Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D., releasing from Tyndale House Publishers in August 2019.