Why Depression May Feel Like A Comfortable Space, According To A Psychotherapist

Depression isn't exactly a favorable experience, but that doesn't stop the symptoms of depression from creating a pattern that feels comfortable. The mental health condition can cultivate a cycle, one that keeps the person affected by depression in an emotional space that may begin to feel like a known environment. Coupled with other symptoms, this may begin to affect the ability to cope, or reduce the belief that the condition can be overcome. 

The American Psychiatric Association explains that depression — officially known as major depressive disorder — is a medical condition that leads to losing interest in formerly pleasurable activities. It includes pervasive feelings of sadness, excessive fatigue, and thought patterns that are self-deprecating. It's estimated that one in six people will experience depression at some point in their lives, with the condition affecting women at a rate of one in three likely to endure depression during their lifespan.

No two people encounter depression in the same manner, though there are common symptoms that make the medication condition identifiable. One trend experts have realized is that many people with depression fall into a sort of comfort within the state of their symptoms. In fact, the symptoms themselves exacerbate the comfort found in depression. Ann Russo, LCSW, MA.TH, a psychotherapist and clinical director of AMR Therapy, says that "while everyone's experience with depression is unique, there are several factors that contribute to why depression may feel like a comfortable space for some individuals." 

Familiarity fuels fears

The length of time a person experiences depression is unique, though the minimum amount of time for symptoms to persist in order to obtain the diagnosis of major depressive disorder is two weeks, reports Healthline. Some people may experience depression for a few weeks and never have symptoms again, while others may have recurring episodes of symptoms for months — or even years. Spending an extended amount of time in any place, including emotional states, can create a sense of acquaintanceship after a while. Ann Russo reveals that "depression can provide a sense of familiarity and predictability. Its chronic nature may lead individuals to become accustomed to its presence, creating a distorted sense of comfort in the midst of life's uncertainties."

Russo also adds, "The constant low mood, although painful, may feel more manageable than the rollercoaster of emotions experienced outside of depression's grip." Given that depression puts those affected at risk of low self-esteem, the familiarity can quickly devolve into fear — which is fed by depression's various symptoms. "Depression's tendency to induce withdrawal and isolation can also contribute to its perceived solace. Some individuals find comfort in solitude, as it eliminates the need to navigate complex social interactions and side-steps potential rejection," explains Russo. "While this isolation perpetuates the cycle of depression, it offers temporary relief from the challenges of interpersonal relationships."

Depression can create emotional numbness

So what else is it about a depressive experience that leaves us feeling comfortable? Russo explains that emotional numbness is a contributing factor. "Depression often accompanies a reduction in intense emotions, including pain and sadness. This emotional blunting can temporarily shield individuals from overwhelming feelings or traumatic experiences, offering respite from vulnerability," states Russo. Emotional numbness (also referred to as emotional blunting), occurs when someone has muted emotional responses to situations that would normally evoke emotions. These individuals sometimes report that they don't feel any emotional reaction at all. Unfortunately, emotional numbness can lead to a decreased ability to care for the feelings of others expressing their emotions. This can, in turn, lead to social anxiety and fear of rejection in interpersonal relationships. 

Experiencing indifference as a result of emotional numbness may lead to increased self-isolation. WebMD describes several "depression traps" that are easy to fall into. The symptomatic traps include social withdrawal, avoidance of exercise, and negative thought patterns. Skipping workouts can enhance isolation, especially if the person no longer goes outside for walks or relied on the gym as a social environment. Self-deprecating thought patterns — particularly when combined with the trap of rumination — can lead a person to develop low self-esteem and self-worth, becoming consumed by negative beliefs about themselves. 

Depression may provide much needed control

While relying on a depressive state for comfort isn't something that people choose to do, it might (paradoxically) be the only way for them to feel like they have any control over their lives, emotions, and experience. Russo explains that "Some individuals may perceive a sense of control within their depression. It can create an environment where they feel more in charge of their thoughts, actions, and the pace of their lives."

With depression, it's common for people to feel like they've lost control of the elements of life they used to have a say in. Sometimes, those with depression can even lose their sense of control over their own thought patterns — leading to a cycle of self-deprecation and the trap of cognitive distortion, per PsychCentral. The presence of putting oneself down through a critical inner dialogue can result in automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). This is exacerbated by the changes in mood typical of major depressive disorder. 

Even though depression puts one's agency and sense of self-worth at risk, Russo explains that "Depression may be seen as a refuge from external pressures and expectations, allowing individuals to retreat into their own internal world where they feel a greater sense of autonomy." In such a state, the familiarity of low mood can itself become comforting.

Resistance to change maintains the comfort

Ann Russo has long dedicated her therapeutic practice to prioritizing diversity and understanding depression's thematic elements across an array of experiences, trauma, and adversity.  With such expansive and varied experience, Russo has garnered a unique insight into how depression becomes a comfortable space — and how it remains a comfortable space even when it causes emotional numbness and isolation. At times, someone enduring depression may not be able to consider any state beyond their current one, says Russo. She explains: "The hopelessness associated with depression makes it challenging for individuals to envision a future beyond their current state. The familiarity of depression can create apprehension and fear of the unknown, causing individuals to cling to the comfort of the familiar, even if it is painful." When coupled with isolation from interpersonal connections, the grip on depression's comfort may become tighter. 

Developing comfort in depression can make overcoming the medical condition more difficult. "Depression can foster resistance to change," emphasizes Russo. She adds that it can be exponentially more difficult to seek a change in experience when one's thought patterns and low emotional reactivity feel like the only aspects under their control. Because of the nature of the condition, achieving any other existence can feel like a hopeless pursuit. But there is in fact hope of overcoming depression.