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Image of a woman and a man not speakingSources of Depression in Women

By Dr. James Dobson

Perhaps the most inescapable conclusion I have drawn from psychological counseling of women concerns the commonness of depression and emotional apathy as a recurring fact of life. The majority of adult females seem to experience these times of despair, discouragement, disinterest, distress, despondency, and disenchantment with circumstances as they are. I have come to call this condition "The D's" for obvious reasons. A counselee will say, "I have the D's today," and I know precisely what she means.

Depression is not uniquely characteristic of women, certainly. But it occurs less frequently in men and is apparently more crisis oriented. In other words, men get depressed over specific problems such as a business setback or an illness. However, they are less likely to experience the vague, generalized, almost unidentifiable feeling of discouragement which many women encounter on a regular basis. Even a cloudy day may be enough to bring on a physical and emotional slowdown, known as the blahs, for those who are particularly vulnerable to depression.

The impact of depression can be minimized somewhat by an understanding of the cyclical nature of emotions occurring in both sexes. Haven't you observed from your own experience that highs are followed by lows and lows by highs? There is a regular fluctuation, almost like a mathematical sine curve (illustrated below) from a peak of enthusiasm to the depth of gloominess.

Furthermore, individual personalities do not extend much farther in one direction than they do the other. In other words, if we draw a line across the middle of the curve, symbolizing the emotional center (neither high nor low), the distance from there to the peak for a particular person, is almost the same as the distance from there to the valley. Let's look at an example or two: Type I people, characterized below, don't get very excited about anything. These Steady Freddies and Stable Mabels don't cheer enthusiastically at football games and their laughter is never boisterous. Good news is received about as calmly as bad. On the other hand, they never get very discouraged either. They are rather dull people, but at least they're consistently dull! You can count on them. Today will be much like yesterday, tomorrow, and next November.

By contract, Type II people (symbolized below) are the world's true "swingers." Their emotions bounce from the rafters down to the basement and back up the wall again.

We all know at least one Type II individual who gets extremely happy every now and then. He arises in the morning and giggles at the very thought of the sunrise. He waves at the birds and grins at the flowers and whistles zippity-doo-dah throughout the day. Beware of this jolly fellow! I can guarantee you that he is going to crash not many days hence. And when he falls, great will be the collapse and disintegration thereof. Nothing will go right and life won't be worth living and he will have no friends and woe will fill the entire earth. He's so sentimental he will even weep at supermarket openings. He is, truly, an emotional yo-yo. And for reasons known only to a confused Cupid, this Type II extremist will probably marry a Type I bore, and the two of them will scratch and claw each other regularly for the next forty years.

My wife and I attended a symphony in Berlin during our first trip to Europe. Sitting in front of us was a young man who was probably studying music at a local university. He went into some kind of strange ecstasy during the first half of the performance, swaying to the orchestration with his eyes closed, and standing to cheer after every number. Following the last performance before the intermission, he went crazy with delight; you would have thought USC had just scored the winning touchdown against Notre Dame for the national championship. He yelled "Bravo! Bravo!" and waved to the conductor. But wouldn't you know, the second half of the performance made him sick. He slumped in his chair, booed the orchestra, and muttered his displeasure throughout the remaining hour of the concern. He finally sprang to his feet and pushed toward the aisle, stepping on toes, knees, and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, stalking from the auditorium in a huff. Though I've never seen this young man, either before or after the concern, I can safely state that he typifies a Type II personality. His capacity for a "high," demonstrated in the first half of the performance, was matched by an equal and opposite "low" as the evening progressed. Frankly, I enjoyed his antics more than I did the music, but I wouldn't want him as a brother-in-law. He had more "hang-ups" than the phone company. Don't you know his wife has some interesting stories to tell...?

It is also helpful to understand the nature of emotional rhythm in human beings. Anything producing an extreme "high" will set the stage for a later "low," and vice versa. About a year ago, for example, my wife and I bought a newer home. We had waited several years to find the right house, and we became very excited when escrow closed and the property was finally ours. The elation lasted for several days, during which time I discussed the experience with Shirley. I mentioned that we had been very high and that our excitement could not continue indefinitely. Emotions don't operate at maximum velocity for very long. More important, it was likely that our mental set would drop below sea level within a short period of time. As expected, we both experienced a vague letdown into mild depression about three days later. The house didn't seem so wonderful and there wasn't anything worth much enthusiasm. However, having anticipated the "downer," we recognized and accepted its temporary fluctuation when it came.

Your own depression will be more tolerable if you understand it is a relatively predictable occurrence. It is likely to appear, for instance, following a busy holiday, the birth of a baby, a job promotion, or even after a restful vacation. The cause for this phenomenon is partly physical in nature. Obviously, elation consumes greater quantities of body energy, since all systems are operating at an accelerated rate. The necessary consequence of this pace is fatigue and exhaustion, bringing with it a more depressed state. Thus, highs must be followed by lows. The system is governed by a psychological law. You can depend on it. But in the healthy individual, thank goodness, lows eventually give ways to highs, too.

Returning to my earlier statement, it is not the "normal" fluctuation from high to low which causes me concern. Rather, it is the tendency of many women to remain in a depressed state much longer than should be expected. Instead of oscillating from high to low, these people remain blue and discouraged for two or three weeks every month. Some are perpetually trapped in the emotional cellar for years without relief. The recurring presence of this complaint in my professional experience has led me to explore its causes and solutions.

Before difficult problems can be solved, they must be understood. For example, the guilty poliomyelitis virus had to be identified and isolated before Dr. Jonas Salk could produce a vaccine to combat it. In like manner, I set about identifying and isolating the specific causes for inordinate periods of depression in women. I had already observed in counseling sessions that the same frustrations and irritations were reflected by women of varying ages and backgrounds. There were, in fact, ten problems which had become extremely familiar to me. I had heard them repeated enough to have memorized the typical circumstances surrounding each irritation. Therefore, I devised a simple, ten-item questionnaire entitled "Sources of Depression in Women," on which are listed those recurring themes. Printed on the next page is a copy of that brief test.

Later, I asked approximately seventy-five women to rank the ten items appearing on the questionnaire according to their frustration from each source. The most depressing of the ten was to be given a 1; the least relevant item was scored 10. By averaging the results, it was then possible to determine which problems were most influential in the lives of the women surveyed.

While this study was never intended to meet the rigid specifications of the scientific method in every details, it is interesting to know something about he women who completed the questionnaire. The seventy-five participants were married women between twenty-seven and forty years old; the mean age was probably about thirty-two. The majority were mothers who still had small children at home. Since the questionnaire was given in two church settings, most of the women professed to being dedicated to the Christian faith. They were predominately middle-class, suburban homemakers. Each was asked to rank the items in privacy, not indicating her name or other personal identification. (This questionnaire has more recently been discussed with 5000 women participating in Family Life Seminars, verifying the validity of the original findings.)

The results of the questionnaire are presented on the following pages, with the ten sources of depression appearing in the order indicated by approximately half of the participants. (The rankings for the second group were very similar to the first, but were not identical.) Before reading further, however, it is suggested that the reader complete the questionnaire on his own behalf. Women should number a sheet of paper from 1 to 10, and then rank the items twice: The first time through, rank them according to your own experience; the second time, rank them as you think the other women probably did as a group. Male readers might want to do this second ranking, guessing the responses of the study group.

Sources of Depression Among Women

Please rank the following sources of depression according to their applicability in your life. Do not sign your name.

1.   Absence of romantic love in my marriage. _____ _____
2.   In-law conflict. _____ _____
3.   Low self-esteem. _____ _____
4.   Problems with the children. _____ _____
5.   Financial difficulties. _____ _____
6.   Loneliness, isolation, and boredom. _____ _____
7.   Sexual problems in marriage. _____ _____
8.   Menstrual and physiological problems. _____ _____
9.   Fatigue and time pressure. _____ _____
10.   Aging. _____ _____

Low Self-Esteem

Believe it or not, Low Self-Esteem was indicated as the most troubling problem by the majority of the women completing the questionnaire. More than 50 percent of the group marked this item above every other alternative on the list, and 80 percent placed it in the top five. This finding is perfectly consistent with my own observations and expectations: even in seemingly healthy and happily married young women, personal inferiority and self-doubt cut the deepest and leave the most wicked scars. The same old nemesis is usually revealed within the first five minutes of a counseling session; feelings of inadequacy, lack of confidence, and a certainty of worthlessness have become a way of life, or too often, a way of despair for millions of American women.


For more on this topic, read What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, by Dr. James Dobson.



From What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women by Dr. James C. Dobson.

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