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108: The Sneaky Scoundrel of Depression

Jul 05, 2022

We’ve all felt sad or “off” at one time or another, but when that feeling lasts for a long time or starts to interfere with your life, it could be depression. Mental health specialist Scott Langenecker, PhD, talks to the guys about what depression is, why it happens, and some strategies on how to get back to living your best life.

Episode Transcript

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Mitch: Have you been feeling a little off lately or maybe sad for a prolonged amount of time without any obvious cause? I know I feel that sometimes. Could it be depression? And if it is, what are we as guys supposed to do about it?

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S. impacting as many as six million men a year. And yet, according to research, men may be more likely to suffer from the severe consequences of depression, like substance abuse and suicide.

This is "Who Cares About Men's Health," where we aim to give you some information, inspiration, and a different interpretation of your health. And today we'll see if we can't shed some light on depression.

I'm Producer Mitch, and I bring a little more than the microphones. And as always, we have Scot, manager of The Scope Radio, and he always brings a healthy dose of BS. Hey, Scot.

Scot: That's right. I'm ready with a healthy dose of healthy BS. I don't know what happened there. My mouth stopped working. All right. Why don't you introduce Troy?

Mitch: And the man who brings the MD, Dr. Troy Madsen.

Troy: Mitch, I'm super excited to talk about depression.

Mitch: I know, right? The most exciting topic. And joining us today is Dr. Scott Langenecker, the clinical neuropsychologist and professor of psychiatry at University of Utah Health.

Dr. Langenecker: Hi.

Mitch: Now, before we get to the professional, I think one of the things that we should probably talk about first is kind of the layperson's understanding of depression, because I think we toss that term around a lot. It's like, "Oh, I'm feeling a little depressed." That seems to come up a lot and I'm not always 100% sure if that's true depression. Scot, when you hear depression, what does it mean to you?

Scot: That's a great question because it comes back to this whole notion of what does it even mean to be happy? I tend to think that my people, if you will, tend to be maybe just a little on the depressed side. Maybe we don't relish in life as much as other people. Maybe we're not as effervescent.

But what is it really? I don't know. Is it a feeling of you just can't go on? Is it a feeling of you can't breathe, like you're dragging your feet in concrete just trying to get things done? Is that depression? So yeah, I'll be curious to find out.

Mitch: Yeah. And what about you, Troy? I wonder if in your practice at the ER and stuff like that, you must have at least a little bit of an understanding of it.

Troy: We do see a lot of patients who come in who are depressed. And certainly, I think all of us have fluctuations in mood and outlook. I think depression in my experience, it's more when it's . . . You get to a point where it's just like this haze, this fog that you're in, and it affects your ability to do your work. It certainly affects your outlook, affects your relationships.

So I see it as certainly a step beyond just a lot of, I think, the fluctuations we might feel in our mood over the course of a day or a week or whatever that might be.

Scot: Or just a little sadness or feeling the blues or something like that.

Troy: Yeah. Exactly. And like you said, Mitch, you might be like, "I just feel depressed today." But yeah, I think it's certainly something beyond that kind of mood changes we might experience.

Mitch: Yeah. And personally, I actually got diagnosed with some depression this last year and have been taking a kind of professional approach to it. But I don't want to bury the lede. I don't want to steal anyone's thunder when talking about depression. So why don't we get to Scott?

Dr. Langenecker, what is depression? And I guess as a follow-up, what is causing that?

Dr. Langenecker: So I want to put it in two big categories to start out with. The first big category is that you all alluded to, that sort of feeling sad for more than just a day, maybe a couple of weeks. So that's one big bucket.

The other big bucket is, "Man, I used to really enjoy hiking or skiing or running or playing basketball, and now it's kind of like blah. It doesn't give me that jazz anymore." And it could be one of those things. It could be one of the other things.

There are another seven symptoms that can be part of it, but those are the two big ones that sort of tip people off. But if you're not looking forward to things coming up in the future, or you look at your schedule for the day and you're like, "This is objectively a good day and I still feel sad," that's probably a tip-off.

Scot: Is it really sadness, though? I mean, how do we even define what sadness is?

Dr. Langenecker: Well, that's a great question because I'm not sure men are allowed to feel sad.

Scot: Oh, okay.

Dr. Langenecker: Can I say that?

Mitch: Only anger.

Troy: Scot, you've never felt it, so you wouldn't know.

Scot: Right. The eternal optimist.

Dr. Langenecker: Sadness isn't a man thing.

Scot: I don't know. Yeah, I think about depression and I don't know that I think about sadness necessarily. Maybe something like overwhelmed with some emotion. Maybe it's overwhelmed with sadness.

Dr. Langenecker: Yeah. So let's talk about the male interpretation of sadness, which is, "I've got people counting on me and I can't cut it. I can't do what I'm supposed to do and I'm letting them down. I feel this pressure and I can't do what I'm supposed to do as a man, supporting my family, supporting my job at work." So it comes across as that. That's one way.

The other way is irritability and anger, which is like, "Ugh, that person just drives me crazy all the time." And maybe it's true. Maybe they are. Or maybe it's just that you're feeling a bit depressed and anything is going to set you off. Those are kind of the two big ones for men.

Troy: It's interesting that you frame it that way too, because I agree. I think a lot of times we think of sadness like just being really weepy and down in the dumps. But to think of it that way in terms of just feeling more irritable and angry and just a sense of inadequacy, that makes a whole lot more sense in terms of, I think, probably how that sadness manifests in us as men.

Dr. Langenecker: Yeah. I would add there's sort of this classic trope about the middle-age crisis for men and getting a new wife and getting a sports car and buying new golf equipment. There's a premise for that that's sort of rooted in depression, which is, "Man, the things that used to really interest me just don't anymore. I feel kind of flat. I feel not into it anymore." Every time you go into that sort of stereotypical midlife crisis mode for men, is that depression? No. But it is some clues, right?

Troy: And you also mentioned it's not just a day. It's not just one day, "I feel irritable today." Maybe I didn't sleep well last night. You're talking about something sustained over weeks to really diagnose depression.

Dr. Langenecker: Yeah. And I should add one more thing. I know you've all talked about the interface between the brain and the body. Sometimes depression comes out, not just in men, but in women too, it comes out in the body. So people are like, "Oh, my back is just driving me crazy. I can't get comfortable, I can't sleep," or, "Man, my knee is just bothering me lately." And it turns out that there's actually a reason for that.

So some of the neurochemical systems that interface between the body and the brain are sending some of those signals both directions. And so it comes out sometimes as pain.

Troy: Yeah, and I will absolutely second that. A very large percentage of people I see in the ER with chronic abdominal pain, back pain, even chest pain, they're clearly underlying emotional health issues, and a lot of that is depression.

So that's a good point of being aware of maybe some of the physical symptoms we're seeing. Certainly not to blow those off as just writing those off without getting those checked out, but it makes sense that a lot of that does relate to depression or mental health.

Mitch: Wow.

Dr. Langenecker: And if you take that analogy a bit further, and this goes back to my upbringing, when you had pain in the olden days, you would go see a chiropractor, like if you have back pain or leg pain or whatever. And what happens in a chiropractor's office? You get a kind, caring individual. They do some manual adjustments. They spend some time with you. It's a powerful human interaction, and it resets some of those neurochemical signals in addition to some of the psychological support that comes with it.

Mitch: So if it's causing trouble in your mood, your behavior, and also in your body, do we know what causes depression?

Dr. Langenecker: We have clues.

Mitch: But no answers. Just clues? Okay.

Dr. Langenecker: We have clues, but no answers. Yeah. So the easiest way to think about it is our brain is really, really sensitive to things that are dangerous to us. And we grew up evolutionarily in a place where it was really a bad idea to not be afraid of a tiger or of a rattlesnake. And it was really a bad idea to sort of go wandering out in the dark at night. And so our brain has adapted over time so that, for many reasons, we would sleep, but also so that we would have a healthy fear of things that could kill us.

Well, it turns out in the United States today, it's a pretty safe place. Part of the evolutionary makeup that we had, too, is that we had to form small groups to protect each other. And so social connectedness was a super huge important part of being healthy and staying alive.

And then the final thing is if we got sick, we needed a system to keep us separated from other people so that we wouldn't necessarily get them sick as well.

All of these things are great if you're running around in prehistoric times with sabretooth tigers and whatever, but it's not super helpful in our environment now. So we have these super-sensitive in-tune systems for detecting danger and stress and so on, and sometimes our system gets over reactive to these triggers in the world.

Sometimes, however, we have experiences which I would put in the broad category of not being fair. And if I had a nickel for every time I said to a patient, "Hey, what happened to you was not your fault, and it wasn't fair, and let's see what we can do about it," I would be a very wealthy man and I wouldn't be talking to you right now.

Mitch: So you're saying that everyone is maybe hardwired to have these kinds of responses? It's not like you are some sort of different. You're not some anomaly if you experience depression.

Dr. Langenecker: This is where I'm at today, after 25 years of studying this. I think that apart from maybe 3% or 4% of humans, we all have the capability of becoming depressed. And I think that's actually an inherent part of being human. I think it's a good part of being a human. And if you don't have those signals working when things go wrong, people probably won't like you very much.

Mitch: You're unlikeable if you can't get depressed? Is that what you're saying?

Dr. Langenecker: You're unlikeable if you don't care about things and don't care about other people. And it turns out if you take that capacity to care and you combine it with bad experiences, a lot of times that's going to end up being maybe not depression, but some sadness, a couple of days of sadness.

So you asked me the question, "What is the cause of depression?" And that's the segue. The segue is a couple of days of sad to more than a couple of days of sad. I use this term professionally. It's perseveration of negative mood. What the heck is that? It means that the negative mood doesn't leave, no matter how hard you try and shake it.

So it brings me back to Charlie Brown with the rain cloud over his head following him around. That is a beautiful example. And I know that Charles Schulz experienced depression because nobody else would draw that unless they experienced depression.

Mitch: And that's interesting that you said that because that was kind of my sign that something was up. In the past, I could maybe go for a jog after I learned to enjoy running, or I could watch a movie and I could pull myself out of a funk if I did these particular activities, eating food I enjoyed, etc. Suddenly, nothing seemed to pull me out of it. And it didn't matter how hard I worked or how many self-help programs I tried or how many books I read, I just could not get out of it. And that's when I knew I had to talk to someone. And eventually, I had to get some medication for it.

Dr. Langenecker: Yeah, that feedback system, right? We have a feedback system from our brain to our body. And you sort of think in depression, that system gets jammed up. It isn't working the way it's supposed to.

I don't know about any of you, I joined the conversation about running late, but I don't like to run. I hate running, but I love how running makes me feel. And if all of the sudden I didn't feel that way after running, it wouldn't take long for me to say, "You know what? I don't want to run anymore." And that's what depression does.

So we mentioned it before. Depression is this sneaky [beep] that takes away the joy from things and then convinces you that that's a good idea. Like, "Oh, no. I shouldn't seek out joy anymore. That's a great idea. I should just sit in my bed."

Troy: And how good are we at actually recognizing that in ourselves? How often do you find people like Mitch who recognize it, get help, versus how often is it others who are really pointing that out, saying, "Hey, you used to really enjoy this. You don't do it anymore. What's up?" I'm curious how that really works.

Dr. Langenecker: It's interesting. I don't mean this in a negative way, but we as humans have a lot going on, right? There's a lot of stuff going on in our heads, lots of stuff going on in our lives. And sometimes we just miss it. We miss it in ourselves. We miss it in other people. And that's not bad on anybody else. That's just the complexity of being a human being.

But sometimes it's absolutely the case that you miss it yourself. Absolutely the case that somebody else is like, "Hey, I notice that you're a bit off. What's going on?" And then of course as a man, our first response is, "Whoa. No, no, no. We're not going there."

Scot: "No, no. Everything's fine."

Dr. Langenecker: "I just rubbed some dirt on it. It's fine."

Mitch: Right. Can we say sneaky [beep], Scot, or is that what . . .

Scot: I don't know.

Mitch: All right.

Scot: Why sneaky [beep]? Why is depression a sneaky [beep]?

Mitch: That's what I was going to say.

Scot: What is the fact that has . . . What's the definition of [beep]?

Dr. Langenecker: Yeah. Unpleasant fellow. Let's use "the sneaky unpleasant fellow."

Scot: Oh, yeah.

Mitch: Okay. I love that.

Scot: I thought it meant something else, I guess. Okay.

Dr. Langenecker: So, in technical speak, we talk about cognitive distortions, like how depression changes the way you view the world. You view the world in more black and white terms, like, "Things are all good or they're all bad," or, "People are out to get me," or, "Things are never going to work out for me." And those cognitive distortions don't really work for a podcast or for actually talking to patients, like real humans. And so I've come to think of depression as this sneaky inner voice.

So you might remember back in the day, long ago in cartoons where they had the devil on your shoulder and the angel on your shoulder. This is kind of the devil on your shoulder saying, "Yeah, things are terrible. They're always going to be terrible. And that person is not going to help you, even if you ask them for help."

And so those cognitive thoughts are happening in the same exact system that does all of your problem-solving. And it doesn't take long to figure out, "Oh, so the same exact system that's doing the problem-solving is also distorting my perceptions of the world." That's the trap. That's the sneakiness of depression.

Scot: It's like a little saboteur.

Dr. Langenecker: It is absolutely a saboteur. And then to add insult to injury, in depression, I will feel ashamed that my brain is doing this to me on top of that.

Scot: Actually, it's like that game. What's that game, Mitch, that brought up the term sus? "It seems sus."

Mitch: Oh, "Among Us."

Scot: "Among Us." Yeah. It's like the little evil person in "Among Us" that pretends to be your friend, pretends to be looking out for you, but really behind the scenes, not doing cool things.

Dr. Langenecker: Yeah. So we come back to the question of "What is depression?" Depression is your own brain convincing you that things that are good for you aren't good for you.

Mitch: That resonates so much with me. I was actually talking to my therapist the other day. I've been in a bit of a depressive episode. And when I was chit-chatting, it was just like . . . He's like, "You know what you need to do to get better." And I'm like, "I know. I need to start eating better, I need to get out, I need to do the things that I enjoy more, remind myself I enjoy them. I need to be talking to people."

And he's like, "Even if you don't like doing it right now, that's just your depression telling you, 'No. Don't work out. No, don't go talk to these people because they hate you,' or whatever. Just power through it. Ignore them. It might be unpleasant, but you've got to start doing those types of things if you're going to get out of the depression cycle."

And I think that's kind of what I want to ask next. What do you do? How do you fight back against this saboteur of depression?

Dr. Langenecker: I'm glad you brought that up, Mitch, because there's another piece to this. So you take this maleness of "I don't need help," and then you take this sort of cultural belief that we're doing the Horatio Alger thing and just pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. And then you take this idea of positive psychology, which is literally rub some dirt on it or rub the dirt off of it. I don't know what it might be. And for somebody who's experiencing depression, that's basically telling them, "You're an idiot. You can't figure it out. You should have figured it out a long time ago. Why are you such a moron?"

And I'm using really strong language here because that's the saboteur. The saboteur can take really well-meaning, "Hey, maybe you could try this," or often, "You should do this," and it comes across as, "I'm incompetent, and I'm making a big deal out of this, and I should just get over it."

So part of the work with a therapist, honestly and truly, is getting folks to realize that they deserve better and to believe that they deserve better and to do things in the world to actually experience the better. That's how we beat the saboteur.

Mitch: That's interesting, because on another episode we kind of talked a little bit about the first couple of mental health workers I worked with. I was suffering from depression and that was the very same thing I felt. When that first person was like, "Oh, yeah, have you tried gratitude journaling?" the first thing I thought was, "I've tried it. It's obviously not working for me, doc. You've got to help me here. I'm not going to open up the journal again. Things are obviously terrible."

And I think looking back on that, he was probably giving decent advice and good advice. I just was not in the mood to hear it.

Dr. Langenecker: And that's why I use the analogy of a journey with some really comfortable shoes because it's not just the what, it's the when. And there's a phenomenon in depression, the waxing and waiting of depression, where as a therapist, I wait for windows of opportunity. I don't force windows of opportunity. And that has taken years to hone that skill, because if I force it at the wrong time, I'm going to be breaching some of that trust that I worked so hard to build with my client.

Mitch: So to kind of wrap up this discussion on depression, Scott, it sounds like depression is when you are feeling out of sorts or sad for more than one day, things that you used to enjoy aren't giving you that spark of joy that they used to. At what point should someone . . . what is a sign, a red flag that they should probably go talk to someone or they should probably seek some sort of treatment in one way or another? And what can they expect on those first steps of their mental health journey?

Dr. Langenecker: So to come back to that point, having the sadness or lack of joy for . . . Technically, we use the term two weeks or more as sort of the breakpoint. That is not a magical number. That is just a number that we've come up with over time. It could be more than five days, it could be more than three weeks, but just sort of this idea that something is off.

And then if it starts to mess with your sense of who you are as a person and what you deserve in the world, that's the point at which you say, "You know what? I don't have to fight alone. There are really talented people who are out there ready to help me."

Mitch: I love it. And what can they kind of expect on their first couple of steps into getting help?

Dr. Langenecker: I think the main thing is don't rush it, like we were talking about before. Don't feel like you have to rush this thing. We get into this mindset of, "Oh, I can take my car in for a tune-up." A brain tune-up is much more complicated than a car tune-up. It might take a couple of months. It might take longer. Be comfortable with the idea that you are investing in you. You are investing in you deserving a better life.

Mitch: Scott, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for caring about men's health.

Dr. Langenecker: Thank you.

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