Monday, 12 January 2015

You cannot escape reality for long. Why depression is a trance state.

Focusing attention – inwards and outwards 

We have a need for trance, as can be seen by our seeking out experiences that put us into it. For example, golfers will say, “I find it just so relaxing; that’s why I play. I come out here and I can switch off everything else. Nothing exists for me then but the game.” We feel more alive when focused on a task in a trance state.

It is as if, for all of us, our consciousness – the constant switching of attention that enables us to see reality in multi-dimensions as much as possible – is a real burden we carry around. Every time we switch attention we arouse, to some degree, the fight-or-flight response and activate a corresponding amount of stress hormones. That creates tremendous wear and tear. But, when we can go into a relaxed, absorbing trance state and our attention is kept focused, the fight-or- flight response is subdued. Perhaps, without realising it, we are all looking for experiences where we can put the burden down and thereby avoid using energy for the emotionally arousing activity of constantly switching attention.

Relaxation is a temporary relief

It is impossible to be anxious and relaxed at the same time. Relaxation is a lovely state to be in. It’s entrancing! It’s what a lot of people derive from many forms of alternative therapy or from drinking alcohol – their attention and consciousness get ‘locked’, so they don’t need to make much effort. This temporarily filters out certain stress reactions that would otherwise affect their mind/body system. It’s a temporary relief of course. You cannot escape reality for long.

Playing football or badminton will have the same effect. No matter what problems or what deadlines we have, once we start playing the game we are totally released – everything else just disappears for an hour. We become unconscious of our concerns for a while. The only thing that matters is the game, nothing else. When the wider reality is temporarily forgotten, it is a refreshing release from day-to-day pressures. Whilst playing sport does involve physiological activation of the fight-or-flight response, there is an instinctive follow through, when one can play well, that switches off the arousal of the conscious decision making usually associated with it. That’s why it seems so effortless – going into a state of ‘flow’ involves very little conscious decision making.

The depressive trance

Depressed people stop doing things they used to enjoy, so they no longer have that release. Once trapped in a negative (unhelpful) trance state they lose the energy required to focus themselves on a wider horizon, one that has meaning and purpose.

The trance of depression is quite unlike the trance of playing badminton, for example, which, by contrast, is an exhilarating state. That’s because, when playing, we are totally focused outwards, not inwards. And what we are not doing, when in that outward-focused trance, is carrying the burden of decisions to be made, deadlines to be met – all the things in life that require conscious choices and reality checking. We may also try to escape the burden through negative trance states. We become lazy, dreamy, depressed, anxious or angry. We abuse substances or excitement or relationships – do anything, in fact, except take up the burden willingly. When we focus outwards, as in sport, music, gardening and other activities requiring complete concentration, we are relieved of the burden for a while in a much less destructive manner.

Life becomes meaningless

We may not like the burden of daily life’s demands. But, equally, getting caught up in a negative trance state also becomes a burden because, after a certain length of time, we start to get bored with it. We start to realize that there are all kinds of pleasures we are no longer enjoying and suddenly our life becomes meaningless. It’s like becoming aware that we are dreaming the same dream over and over to a point where it becomes tedious. If we stay in a trance state, the rational part of the mind eventually becomes aware of how repetitive it is. We begin to think, “I’m not doing anything interesting in my life. My life is boring. I’m not enjoying my food as much as I used to. I have no energy. This is going to go on for ever.” When such a trance state becomes a burden, we sink into depression. 

Once we understand what a trance state is and the various ways it can be induced, we have a useful way of observing and explaining much of our behaviour. We love many types of positive trance experiences that externally focus our attention, precisely because they release us from the need to switch our attention continually from demand to demand, with all the associated physiological arousal and effort that requires. It is lovely to switch off.


This article is taken from the expanded edition of Human Givens: A new approach to emotional health and clear thinking which contains much more on trance and the need for meaning in life, as well as all references.

For more on depression see and our brand new online course: How to break the cycle of depression.

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