(Eleventh in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
Honesty is one of the main themes that ripple under the surface of “The Blues.” Expressions of honest feelings, whatever they may be at the moment – themes of lost love, painful relationships, dashed hopes, and heartache. The majority of us have or will experience heartache in our lives. Although it seems counterintuitive, most of us feel consoled by songs that express what we are feeling deep inside but may have a hard time putting into words. In order for me to be honest, I have to acknowledge that I am singing The Blues.
There are many different levels of The Blues – i.e. depression – some deeper and more debilitating than others. The grief after losing our son is the worst depression John and I have ever experienced. This year with the Covid pandemic, millions of people the world over are experiencing grief from the death of a loved one, most of the time in horrible circumstances, unable to be with them for their last breath, unable to have a proper memorial. Rates of depression are continuing to soar.
Interestingly, the effects of opiate addiction on the brain are very similar to the effects of depression on the brain. Research on depression shows that it brings about physical changes in the brain, and in particular, the amygdala, “the pleasure center.” It is responsible for emotions such as anger, pleasure, sorrow, fear, and sexual arousal. The amygdala is activated and depleted when a person simply recalls an emotionally charged or frightening memory, and when a person is sad or depressed. This area is deep in our brains and is the same area that is affected by opioids and other drugs, albeit in different ways. Methamphetamines deplete dopamine and serotonin and withdrawal, or the “crash”, results in extreme mood swings including periods of depression and hopelessness.
Depression has many symptoms but the most common are low energy and mood, anxiety, loss of interest, fatigue, disturbed sleep. Depression that follows loss is based on specific identifiable sorrows. The concern comes when depression is prolonged and excessive and less specific. It is then classified as “clinical” and worthy of seeing a specialist to get treatment.
Lack of emotional energy is the consequence of the “stress response” to shock in our bodies and brains. It is an automatic response to a real or perceived physical and/or emotional threat that triggers the release of stress hormones which cause our hearts to pound, muscles to tense, and breath to quicken, preparing us for “fight or flight.” Normally, the built-in feedback-loop allows our brains to turn this response off when the threat passes. If it doesn’t, the high levels of stress hormones can lead to many problems, such as immune system deficiencies and depression. Intense grief keeps stress hormones high – how can we “fight” grief and how can we take “flight” from something within?
Bringing our feelings of depression up to the surface and facing them is the only way to begin the healing process. Seeking help from spiritual sources, joining others who are walking the same path, receiving counseling are all proven to help. And remember to listen to songs from those who have also experienced the blues and offer their gifts to us in a beautiful, melodious way where our souls can begin to process and perhaps even find a way to deal with life’s hardships. Tolstoy said: “Music is the shorthand of emotion.”
“Is there any honest song to sing besides these BLUES?” Switchfoot
2 thoughts on “Singing The Blues”
This is so timely, and well written!
Jennifer Schneider M.D., Ph.D.
Thank you Jennifer for your support and encouragement.