It hit me like a bucket of ice-water in my face. I was putting away a book this morning, and it fell open to this: modern Western women have twice the rates of depression as men.
How could this be? We have access to unprecedented independence, careers, education, birth control, therapy, and options unimaginable to prior generations. What is getting to us? What’s bugging us so much?
I began to read.
Could it be our hormones? Nope. While hormonal factors can play a role in feeling lousy, it’s not significant enough to account for the whopping difference between men and women.
Genetics? Maybe we’re just predisposed for some ancient evolutionary reason? That doesn’t explain it either. While there is a tendency to pass on depression through the generations, careful genetic examination shows that it can’t account for such a wildly lopsided disproportion.
How about our willingness to talk about our depression more openly than men? No, the two-to-one ratio shows up even when people who are very private about their internal states are studied.
Perhaps it’s because women go to therapy more than men, so it’s reported and studied more? While we do, door-to-door surveys produce the same result. Women not in therapy have twice the depression rates as men not in therapy.
Is it due to sex-based discrimination, or economic factors, since women tend to have worse jobs for less money? No. Rich or poor, well-employed or unemployed, women are twice as depressed as men.
How about the multiple demands and roles that women deal with today—working plus tending children and maintaining a home? This theory doesn’t pan out, either. Working women are less depressed than stay-at-homes, who have fewer demands placed on them.
One by one, the possible culprits are eliminated by Martin Seligman in What You Can Change & What You Can’t, A Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. Seligman is known as the “father of positive psychology” and has written and researched extensively on happiness and how to achieve it. After shooting down all of the obvious possibilities, he offers three possible explanations that are all confirmed by social science.
Here’s what the evidence points to:
First, learned helplessness, a proven predictor of depression, is far more prevalent in women than in men. We often feel we have no control over the outcome of a situation, even when we can control it, because we’ve “learned” that we are powerless.
We live in a culture that trains women to be bystanders.
From cradle to grave, Seligman says, women get a masterful education in helplessness—boys learn to be active and adventurous, girls to be passive and dependent. Women who become wives and mothers are devalued by our culture, and women who don’t marry or don’t have children are perceived as out of place.
How about this one, sisters? Women who achieve success or power are seen as tough, bitchy, and aggressive. Man-like. Who wants that? So why bother, we tell ourselves, and ignore the yearnings within our souls.
Since we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, we tend to give up and stop trying. We assume we are helpless when we are in fact, not.
Second, we ruminate more, we churn and worry about our upsets and their causes, way more than men do. We lose our jobs and want to know why, what we did wrong, what happened, how could we have prevented it, who didn’t like us, and on and on. This kind of reflection is not useful and digs us into a deep emotional hole. Men tend to ignore causation and exploration, and take action. It may not be healthy action—they might get drunk, watch sports, or otherwise distract themselves. But they don’t tend to churn about it inside.
Our inner worlds sound like this: Will he call? Maybe he doesn’t like me. What did I do wrong? I said the wrong thing. I wish she wasn’t upset. How can I fix it? I didn’t do enough. I did too much. I’m not enough.
A man’s inner world sounds like this: Hmmm, wonder what’s in the fridge? TGIF. Can’t wait for the game tonight. Maybe I’ll call that girl I went out with.
Think I’m kidding? Ask a man. I have. Lots of times. And they consistently tell me these kinds of answers. Sure they worry, too. Sure they ruminate. But not like we do.
Third, (and this one was the big shocker for me, so buckle up, girlfriends), the futile pursuit of thinness. Yep. We are chasing a biologically impossible ideal with such zeal that we have depressed ourselves in record numbers. We hate our natural curves that much.
We strive to have an unnaturally thin body so excessively, fruitlessly, and unhealthily that we work ourselves up into staggering and unprecedented amounts of depression.
When boys approach puberty, hormones give them lean muscles; when girls arrive, we get body fat. Guess what? We need that extra fat to make estrogen and the female hormones that also bless us with smooth, soft skin, supple bodies, and babies and breast milk. How do we respond to this gift? We hate, starve, vomit, exercise, worry, lipo, pummel, and then overeat ourselves into massive depression.
We are literally brainwashed into thinking our natural beauty is ugly.
Here’s a powerful factoid: all the world over, every culture on the planet that believes thin women are the ideal have women more prone to depression and eating disorders. Every world culture that does not worship at the altar of the unnaturally thin female body has no eating disorders and no lopsided female-to-male depression.
Be clear about this one, please. I’m not suggesting that overeating is an emotionally healthy option. But torturing ourselves because we don’t have a body like a prepubescent teenager’s, loathing our beautiful, curvy, naturally soft bodies is futile and extremely self-destructive. And, our obsession passes this viewpoint along to our daughters, who begin “dieting” practically as soon as they learn to read and write.
What’s the good news in all of this?
All three of these causes can be changed. Learned helplessness, rumination, and poor body image are all based on thinking patterns and false beliefs that we can learn to change.
Isn’t that wonderful, amazing, fabulous news? I’ll say it again. The major causes of depression in modern Western women can be changed when our thinking and attitudes change. By changing something we have control over.
It’s not easy, but depression is worse. I’ve been there.
I don’t know about you, but learning that I was in control of most of the things that bugged and upset me was the single most empowering discovery I ever made. And I do not say that lightly. I am an attorney. When I practiced law, I won cases that impacted thousands of people’s lives. I am a mother. I gave birth to two children and connected with the raw power of my body’s torrential forces. Both of those roles gave me tremendous feelings of power and joy.
But the power and joy available by managing my self-destructive thinking patterns has been beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, and beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
Once I got the hang of it—with simple tools that are powerful, user-friendly, and available—my lifelong tendencies to feel helpless, to worry excessively, and to hate myself for not being built like a Barbie doll began to fade away. So far, it hasn’t returned.
So what do you say? Shall we declare a truce on ourselves and our bodies? Shall we accept that some of us have breasts and hips and, ahem, muffin tops, and that’s okay?
And as for our learned helplessness and our excessive worrying, we have the power to change that, too.
So if you need help get it. A coach or a therapist can do wonders with stuck thinking patterns. If you are prone to feeling low or prone to depression, or actually depressed, be sure that your recovery plan includes resources that help you manage your destructive thoughts.
Seligman’s research also confirms what my experience has taught me: managing your thoughts manages your moods. Our feelings are a direct result of our thinking.