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.
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I love the part about connecting with the “raw power of my body’s torrential forces” through childbirth! And the fact that this work has brought you (Terry)) so much joy after a life of wide and varied accomplishments and experiences is so compelling. This stuff is the sh@#t!!
Just seeing the three explanations laid out like that is like a huge weight lifted. It takes away some of the sting of learned helplessness because yes, there ARE explanations that make sense and that we CAN affect, not just hormones or brain differences.
If we can understand what’s driving our depression and be as awake and mindful when we begin to dip into these patterns, there is a TON of hope. Thank you for showing us that.
Excellent article…hits the truth head on.
Thanks so much Leslie! The tools, approach, and process you will be learning are amazingly powerful, as they give us the power to fully show up and experience everything in our lives, and to then learn, grow, and find meaning in all of it!
Great point, Amy. Why would nature set us up like that? If we think our hormones and brains set us up to feel lousy, we’re accepting yet another belief that creates helplessness. Just because our hormones are different when we feel low doesn’t mean that the hormones CAUSED the feeling. I believe our beliefs can drive our hormones and brains–that’s the whole basis for the body-mind connection, isn’t it? Thanks for your thoughtful words.
Beautifully said, Terry! Knowing this, it is now our obligation, our duty to act! To help girls and women live full, rewarding lives without self recrimination. Kudos on a well written article with much food for thought!
Thank you for a wonderful article Terry!
It’s a little long but I think this quote from Geneen Roth totally relates:
“what I say to women is that if we could put the energy that we have funneled into our relationship with food into being alive, I think we’d have the environmental crisis solved by now. I think there would be no wars by now. I think women are that powerful. But we’ve shushed ourselves by getting ourselves tangled up in this relationship with food. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories but If I did… If I thought there was a master plan to all of this – how do I keep women quiet, how do I keep women from being the most powerful beings that they are – I would say ‘oh, get them all upset about the size of their bodies so that they spend their entire lives trying to be different from who they are and they never have the time or energy or intelligence to put their attention anywhere else’.”
Thanks for the great article!
Terry, is there any information out there about more men being alcoholics than women? After reading Mary Kar’s autobigraphy, Lit, I was consumed with the idea that depression is so very much like alcoholism and how lucky all these alcoholics are to have this tremendous free support system in AA. I see so many similarities in my depression and alcoholism – as far as needing daily reminders or wishing I had a mentor to call when the negative thinking started coming on and not having to pay for a tune up for a mental health! I started thinking about Byron Katie’s Work and wish there were nationwide support groups you could just show up at and have your thoughts realigned. I feel like I have suffered from depression off and on for years and do not know why I have not yet become an alcolholic or developed an eating disorder. Sometimes seems like I might have started healing myself faster and less expensively if I had one of those diseases instead of just depression.
Char– Please be careful what you wish for. Some quick facts about men, women and alcohol: Men are twice as likely to be alcoholics, but the physical toll on women is much greater, as our smaller muscle mass makes us more prone to alcohol’s corrosive effects. We are much more likely to die from alcohol related illnesses and suffer from alcohol related cancers.
My own mother died in her 40s from cirrhosis and malnutrition, after having breast cancer at age 38. She attended free AA meetings and had some very, very expensive private hospitalizations and therapy throughout my life, none of which helped her with her disease. It was extremely stressful and disruptive as a child and let to years of depression for me, despite decades of therapy and SSRIs, etc. I’m finally past it, thanks to not believing my own toxic thoughts any more, and looking for the blessings and magic in everything that happens to me. For me, it works, and I’m finally able to feel the joy I always knew was inside me.
I suspect that the belief that free services for alcohol or eating disorders might have helped you faster is simply another belief that will disrupt your path to healing and peace. Can you find any gratitude in the fact that you have been able to afford private help?
Please stay connected to your body, dear Char, and get at those thoughts when they are little molehills, rather than mountains to be conquered. And, by the way, BK has a free hotline. You can email me directly for the details if you can’t find it on her website.
Thanks, Amy! I love, love, love Geneen Roth. She is so wise and this quote is spot-on. Your work in weight-loss is so vital and important. Thanks for doing it.
There is so much good information in this article!
The two statements that I literally said “Amen” outloud to…
“We are literally brainwashed by ourselves and our culture into thinking our natural beauty is ugly.”
Amen. and to…
“…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.”
Thank you for the great post!
deep sigh. Terry, thank you for writing this.
Thank you, Terry. Your article and all the responses … It is like I have been sitting in a circle of women this afternoon, hearing wise truths and letting it sink in. Ahhh.
Great post. Women in Utah need to hear this. Helplessness for women is not next to Godliness like the Patriarch’s teach.
Thanks everyone. I know these statistics and underlying social science flat out shocked me. And Jill, it’s not limited to Utah, by any means, but I hear what you are saying and totally agree.