Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy on Unsplash

I did a podcast interview yesterday with Mike Miller of Simple Self Mastery. The interview will be released in a few weeks but one of the questions Mike asked me, led to an answer I think is very important. I believe it can help us stay clear of depression.

Mike asked me what I do when I feel overwhelmed. My response was “I learn.” When I start to feel out of sorts, I pick up a book, listen to a podcast or I go online to read non-fiction. I seek knowledge, often about what is bothering me. Curiosity and its satisfaction, calm me.

Gathering resources

This makes sense. As humans, we have sought for thousands of years. We were hunters and gatherers seeking resources. We still must gather resources.

When depressed, we lack the motivation to gather resources, to look around, to be curious.

Estonian neuroscientist and psychobiologist, Dr. Jaak Panksepp, said depression is a seeking disorder. Panksepp theorized that seeking is one of the primal/survival systems, along with PLAY, PANIC/GRIEF, FEAR, RAGE, CARE and LUST (his capitalization). These emotional systems allow all animals to prepare for survival concerns automatically, without thinking.

What cancels out seeking?

Panksepp also said when you’re in the panic-grief modality, seeking is automatically cancelled out. Panic/grief emits a feeling of sadness and loneliness.

I can relate to this. When I’m deep in a state of overwhelm or sadness, I cannot focus. I just want to lie down and sleep. I shut down and stop listening to my curiosity. I don’t have the energy to follow it.

The key is to get into seeking mode before I get to shut down mode.

If my seeking system does not fire up, I lapse into a depressive state — lethargic, tired, blah, unmotivated and stuck.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is that the SEEKING-EXPECTANCY system might be at the core of healing, certainly Panksepp thinks it may be the system at the core of shifting depression. – Deirdre Fay, Psychotherapist

Where to start?

I have to get curious about what is making me upset. What old wounds surfaced? What core attachment needs of mine are not being met? My most familiar old wound is that of not being noticed and subsequently feeling alone, like I have to handle everything myself, including big emotions, difficult decisions and physical work.

I have to seek out the genesis of my unhappiness and find ways to quell it. Once I have an idea what the main issue is, I make it better by seeking information through learning. Sometimes I return to my old tried and true reference books — Wired for Love, The Highly Sensitive Person, Hold Me Tight, Running on Empty, to name a few. Other times I am off on a whole new search for answers. I look to my favorite podcasts, the stack of unread books I have on my shelf or my close friends/family.

On a higher level this SEEKING system is part of our need to make sense of the world, to understand, to make meaning of all that we struggle with.  In fact, Panksepp suggests that our systems are wired for the search more than the end result. — Deirdre Fay, Psychotherapist 

Another way to stimulate seeking

Panksepp said we can restore our seeking system with play. Play stimulates curiosity and seeking. It gives us a feeling of enthusiasm. During play animals and humans find safe ways to compete and create companionship. Social cooperation and boundaries around what we can do and cannot do develop during play. Much of our playtime involves social interaction.

Play ignites the pro-social programming of our higher brain, which moves us away from the reactive and protective lower/primitive brain.

By immersing ourselves in play (whatever our kind of play is), we activate joy and enthusiasm which kick-start our seeking system. When we seek we come back to our core system of engagement and curiosity. More importantly, we lift ourselves out of depression.

What does your seeking look like? Your playtime? What do you do when depression visits you?