Do cats get depressed
Calvin the cat on his twentieth birthday looking a little sad.

Is depression bad?

Welcome to part two of my series on depression. I don’t want to spoil my article by telling whether depression is good or bad, but I will tell you that it is normal. In fact, did you know cats can get depressed? Pictured above is Calvin. Today is his twentieth birthday. He’s a great cat. Very smart and very moody. We often say he is too smart for his own good because he overthinks his life and gets upset. How do we know when he gets depressed? He starts by huffing which is like a sigh of discontent. If his upset continues, it leads to changes in appetite and behavior. He doesn’t play with his toys anymore or groom himself, and he will sleep all day and all night.

In part 1, we discussed four strategies to help shift your mood: action, distraction, relaxation and thinking. By now, you may be wondering why I skipped the discussion about what depression is and why we feel depressed. Two reasons: 1) We all know what it feels like to be sad. 2) Focusing on problems actually makes us sadder. In other words, it is often easier to focus on the solution than the problem. That being said, it is also important to put your problems into perspective. It may hard to believe, but for over 30 years, I didn’t even know that I suffered from depression. I thought the way I felt was normal! I mean, I knew I was not happy, but I had no idea that I suffered from chronic depression. Yikes! (You can relive this inner journey in my travel memoir, Falling Uphill, about my four-year journey around the world on a bicycle. It actually won an award in the personal struggles category, meaning my personal struggle with depression.)

Falling Uphill Anniversary Edition: One man's quest for happiness around the world on a bicycle. By Scott Stoll.
Falling Uphill. The travel memoir about Scott’s personal struggle with depression.

Once I defined my problem, it allowed me to spend almost all my time on solutions. So, allow me to define depression in layman’s terms. This will help you find a better solution to feeling better. As you will see, there are some significant differences between being unhappy, sad and depressed. But first, we need to define the two categories of feelings.

Types of feelings

  • Comfortable and uncomfortable: More commonly called good and bad. While writing our book, Dream It, with the American Psychological Association, we weren’t allowed to describe any emotions as bad, because every emotion serves a purpose. (More about that below.)
  • Emotions and bodily sensations: English can be a sloppy language, so when people say they feel good, it could refer to an emotion or a physical state. I like to use the words pleasant and unpleasant to describe a bodily sensation or what is often called a physical feeling. Examples of unpleasant bodily sensations are feeling itchy, hot, cold, or pain. A broken leg is extremely unpleasant! It can also make us sad to break our leg, but that is an emotional feeling on top of the physical pain. I also use the word pleasure to describe a bodily sensation that feels good. This is an important distinction when it comes to depression because often people will substitute a pleasurable activity to make themselves feel emotionally better. For example, jogging might be a pleasurable habit that helps, whereas drinking alcohol is not. You don’t have to use the words pleasant and unpleasant, but I encourage you to distinguish between a physical and emotional feeling.

Types of sad emotions

  • Unhappy or not happy: Unhappy is often considered a synonym for being sad; however, being unhappy is a more transient feeling and regards a specific event or thing. For example: if your team lost an important game, you would be unhappy (dissatisfied, displeased). This feeling often dissipates quickly, especially if we are distracted.
  • Sad: Feeling sad or sadness affects us on a more personal level. It refers to sorrow, grief, regret. For example, if our loved one died (like your beloved 20-year-old cat), we would be very sad. It would probably seem unbearable and last a long time. But it is normal to feel sad and grieve a loss. And, once we process our grief, it goes away. That’s not to say it won’t be sad if we think about it, but we are no longer dwelling on it.
  • Depressed: Imagine feeling sad and it just never ends. This is depression. It can range from feeling numb to a profound and painful sense of despair. You may feel like life is meaningless and not worth living. Untreated, it can go on forever. It’s difficult to give an example of what causes depression because it may be a shift in your biology or maybe one sad thought led to another that led to another… (Depression can be complicated. If you want more information on depression and to learn the warning signs to look out for, there are additional resources here at BetterHelp.)

A simple solution to feel better

Whew! That was a lot of different types of sad. The good news is that no matter which type of sad you are, you can implement a solution to feel better now. I’m going to give you a really simple solution to feel better now. It won’t solve everything, but it will be one step of many.

When most people talk about feeling depressed it is generally understood that this is a “bad” emotion, and we want it to go away. I fought my depression for years until it was like a giant, ugly monster in mind. Eventually, I learned to accept sadness as a normal part of life. And, when my sadness grows into depression, I think: “This too shall pass.” I wish somebody would have told me that being sad is normal. Maybe they did and I forgot or, more likely, I didn’t believe them. Oh well, we all learn our lessons in due time.

In other words, my first line of defense against depression is acceptance. Yep, don’t fight it. Consider your feelings normal — because they are normal! They serve a purpose the same way pain tells you to take your hand off a hot stove. To me, being sad is like a friend patting me on the back, saying, “You really care a lot.” More times than not, when I give myself permission to feel sad, I can work through it, and it disappears. Afterwards, I feel stronger, more in touch with my emotions and sympathetic to other people.

Now, I think of my feelings as my friends. Sometimes I like to take my friends to the movies. “Hey, sadness, let’s go see a romantic comedy and cry our eyes out.”

Does this solution sound too simple? Give it a try and let me know. Leave a comment below.

In part 3 of my series on depression, we will discuss whether happiness is a choice or not? And, I will give you even more solutions. In fact, I think it is the best solution I’ve discovered.

PS. If my solution didn’t work, you could always get a cat. Feeling like you are not alone works wonders.

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