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What It Really Means To Be In Love

How to get past your own defenses and learn to build a real relationship?

While many of us may have sensed it intuitively, there is now science behind the statement that “Love is all you need.” A 75-year longitudinal study by Harvard researchers suggests that love is indeed a key to a happy and fulfilling life.

While love seems to be a universally valued attribute, defining it in behavioral terms can be a challenge. As the Harvard study’s lead researcher, Dr. George Vaillant, wrote of his team’s findings, two essential ingredients are proven to correlate with a happy existence: “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

While many of us believe we would like to be in love, we face many hurdles in taking the actions that allow love to flow freely throughout our lives and relationships. We have many ways of defending ourselves against love and can struggle to give and receive love with ease, openness, and vulnerability.

With love being so closely connected to meaning and fulfillment, it’s valuable for each of us to define love as an action or series of actions we can take to bring us closer to the people we value. In a romantic context, some essential characteristics that fit the description of a loving relationship include:

• Expressions of affection, both physical and emotional.
• A wish to offer pleasure and satisfaction to another.
• Tenderness, compassion, and sensitivity to the needs of the other.
• A desire for shared activities and pursuits.
• An appropriate level of sharing of possessions.
• An ongoing, honest exchange of personal feelings.
• The process of offering concern, comfort, and outward assistance for the loved one’s aspirations.

Love includes feeling for the other that goes beyond any selfishness or self-interest on the part of the loved one. As such, love nurtures and has a positive effect on each person’s self-esteem and sense of well-being. Love never involves deception, because misleading another person fractures his or her sense of reality.

So how well do we meet these standards for being loving? When we think about a relationship that is meaningful to us, we have to ask:

• Do we both behave in ways that nurture each other?
• Do we take actions to make the other person feel good?
• Do we consider what lights that person up, separate from our own interests?

Too often, we think of love as an almost passive state of being, as opposed to a conscious choice we make. When we regard love as something we simply fall into, we can easily slip into routines with the person we value or lose a sense of separateness and respect. Instead, we view that person as a part of us. We then run the risk of creating a fantasy bond, an illusion of fusion in which real feelings of fondness and attraction are replaced by the form of being in a relationship. In other words, we come to see ourselves and our partner as a single unit. We then fall into roles rather than appreciating each other as individuals and experiencing the exciting, loving feelings that result.

A fantasy bond offers a false sense of security—the illusion that we are no longer alone. However, when we connect to someone in this way, we lose our sense of vitality, and we give up significant aspects of our relationship. The behavioral operations of love are replaced with a fantasy of being in love, which does not nurture either partner.

Relationships tend to go south when we stop taking actions that our partner would perceive as loving and instead start looking to our partner solely to meet our own needs. It’s important to distinguish emotional hunger from real love. Have you ever witnessed a parent hugging a child and wondered whether the hug was intended to comfort the child, offering reassurance and care, or to soothe the parent, taking something from the child? When we reach out to our partner, it can be valuable to examine whether our behaviors are for them or for ourselves. Are we looking to them to fulfill us in some way that is unfair to them? Are we hoping they will make up for an emptiness or hurt from our past?

A couple I’ve worked with recently recognized an example of this dynamic. The wife would often compliment her husband, but he rarely felt acknowledged by her words. When she recounted some of the recent comments she made, she noticed that they were less of a reflection of him and more a reflection on her. Statements like: “Aren’t I married to such a handsome, well-put-together man?” Or: “Haven’t I picked a winner?” didn’t capture qualities that were important to him. They were traits she valued in a partner that reconfirmed her own self-esteem and sense of worth.

Love should never be an act of manipulation. It is not a mark of ownership over another person, but the exact opposite—a genuine appreciation of a person as a separate individual. When we see a person this way, we allow ourselves to fully value them for who they are and for the happiness they bring to our lives. We are driven to be generous toward the person, to show compassion and kindness in a way that both they and the outside world would view as loving.

Of course, there are many barriers we put in place that not only keep us from finding this type of relationship but from achieving it with the person we love. One reason we wind up in less-than-loving relationships is the ways we were treated in our past. We may have become familiar with family dynamics in which we were rejected or intruded on, in which case we tend to seek out or recreate these same dynamics in our adult relationships. To become more loving thus means recognizing ways we self-sabotage: How are we recreating past hurts in our current relationships?

As we reflect on these behaviors, we learn a lot, not only about how we interfere with our naturally loving feelings for others but about the negative ways we feel about ourselves. It’s difficult to express love outwardly when we don’t feel our own sense of self-worth. One of the biggest reasons we shut out love is because we feel unworthy or self-denying. Therefore, to have a loving relationship, we must challenge our negative self-concept or critical inner voice. When we do this and take the loving actions that contradict our critical self-image, we enhance our own sense of worth and are able to get closer to the people we love.

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Symptoms Of Severe Depression

First, let’s get some terminology straight. ‘Severe depression’, ‘major depression’ and ‘clinical depression’, are terms that tend to be used interchangeably to mean the same thing.

What these terms refer to is the condition described technically by psychiatrists as ‘major depressive disorder’. Therefore as we discuss the symptoms of major depressive disorder in this article, bear in mind that we are looking at what may also be called:

• Major Depression Symptoms
• Clinical Depression Symptoms, and
• Symptoms of Severe Depression.

The Symptoms of Severe Depression – The Technical Version

A person is suffering from major depressive disorder or (severe or clinical depression) if for most of the day, nearly every day for at least 2 weeks, they have had at least 5 of the following symptoms, including (1) and/or (2):

1. A low/depressed mood.
2. Significantly less interest in and pleasure from usual activities (this is called “Anhedonia”).
3. Significant change in appetite or weight.
4. Inability to sleep or sleeping more than usual.
5. Fatigue, loss of energy.
6. Feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
7. Lethargy or hyperactivity.
8. Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
9. Recurring thoughts of suicide or death.

Now, let’s break that down a bit.

Step 1

First, it is important to note that low mood and/or loss of pleasure or interest in usual activities (Anhedonia) must be present.

In effect these are the threshold conditions. Doctors are sometimes recommended to screen for depression by asking questions to establish whether either of these two conditions are present.

Step 2

If you are suffering from low mood and Anhedonia, then the next consideration is whether 3 of the other listed symptoms are present.

If you are suffering from either low mood or Anhedonia, then 4 of the other symptoms need to be present.

Step 3

The next step relates to the duration of symptoms. The relevant symptoms must have been present every day for at least two weeks and must have been felt for most of every day.

Of course you may in fact have been suffering for much longer than two weeks or have had more than one episode where the symptoms have been present for at least two weeks. This is really the norm, of course – we don’t usually go to our doctor two weeks and one day after starting to feel depressed.

Step 4

The final step that I didn’t refer to above, but which it is crucial to consider, is that your symptoms must be a change from your normal state and have a significant impact on your day to day functioning. The symptoms must: “cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

If you think about it, this is what is at the heart of an individual’s experience of depression. It is the inability to function normally that takes us out of the ‘feeling down’ camp into a whole new arena.

Symptoms of Severe Depression – The Real Life Version

Whilst it is useful for you to know the technical framework that doctors use to assess depression, the criteria may not necessarily reflect your own descriptions about the way you feel. We can all experience different symptoms or express them in different ways, both to ourselves and others.

Depression – what is it?:

“Diagnosis by counting is a totally absurd, and often very dangerous, proposition. When it works, we arrive at a very rough indicator of what may be wrong with us. Too often, the exercise is wholly misleading.”

For this reason, doctors assessing a patient for depression (assuming that are doing a thorough job) should ask lots of questions about the way the patient feels and look for examples of behavior that may or may not fit into the accepted criteria.

Some of the other ways that you might use to describe the way you feel, but which in substance may still fit within the technical criteria are as follows:

• Feeling flat
• Feeling very down
• Feel like I don’t care about anything
• Having to make a real effort to do anything
• Can’t really feel anything any more
• Don’t care about the things I used to
• Feel very on edge
• Feel very stressed
• Very irritable
• Can’t think straight
• Can’t make up my mind about anything
• Don’t feel like I can go on
• Feel useless
• Feel hopeless
• Don’t see any future
• Don’t see the point of anything
• Can’t get out of bed
• Don’t want to see anybody
• Don’t want to talk to anybody
• Can’t sleep
• Can’t eat
• Can’t stop eating
• Don’t have any energy
• Feel exhausted

Other Diagnoses:

If you feel that something is not quite right with your moods or the way that you feel, you need to be aware that there are various different types of depression and other behavioral or mood disorders. So, if your situation doesn’t reflect the symptoms of severe depression, then you or your doctor should consider whether any of the other possibilities might apply.

These include –

• Dysthymia (milder, prolonged depression)
• Bi-polar disorder (formerly manic depression)
• Adjustment disorder with depressed mood (a depressive reaction to a particular event or stress)
• Schizophrenia

Conclusions:

The symptoms of severe depression will usually be very clear to you if you stop to think about how you feel.

But, one of the major difficulties with depression, of course, is that it takes away our inclination to take action to put things right – we can just feel ‘too depressed’ to do anything about it.

That’s why it is essential that you discuss how you feel with somebody close to you, as they may be able to help you get the attention you need.

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Depression: Recognizing The Physical Symptoms

Most of us know about the emotional symptoms of depression. But you may not know that depression can be associated with many physical symptoms, too.

In fact, many people with depression suffer from chronic pain or other physical symptoms. These include:

• Headaches.
These are fairly common in people with depression. If you already had migraine headaches, they may seem worse if you’re depressed.

• Back pain.
If you already suffer with back pain, it may be worse if you become depressed.

• Muscle aches and joint pain.
Depression can make any kind of chronic pain worse.

• Chest pain.
Obviously, it’s very important to get chest pain checked out by an expert right away. It can be a sign of serious heart problems. But depression can contribute to the discomfort associated with chest pain.

• Digestive problems.
You might feel queasy or nauseous. You might have diarrhea or become chronically constipated.

• Exhaustion and fatigue.
No matter how much you sleep, you may still feel tired or worn out. Getting out of the bed in the morning may seem very hard, even impossible.

• Sleeping problems.
Many people with depression can’t sleep well anymore. They wake up too early or can’t fall asleep when they go to bed. Others sleep much more than normal.

• Change in appetite or weight.
Some people with depression lose their appetite and lose weight. Others find they crave certain foods — like carbohydrates — and weigh more.

• Dizziness or lightheadedness.

Because these symptoms occur with many conditions, many depressed people never get help, because they don’t know that their physical symptoms might be caused by depression. A lot of doctors miss the symptoms, too.

These physical symptoms aren’t “all in your head.” Depression can cause real changes in your body. For instance, it can slow down your digestion, which can result in stomach problems.

Depression seems to be related to an imbalance of certain chemicals in your brain. Some of these same chemicals play an important role in how you feel pain. So many experts think that depression can make you feel pain differently than other people.

Treating Physical Symptoms:

In some cases, treating your depression — with therapy or medicine or both — will resolve your physical symptoms.

But make sure to tell your health care provider about any physical symptoms. Don’t assume they’ll go away on their own. They may need additional treatment. For instance, your doctor may suggest an antianxiety medicine if you have insomnia. Those drugs help you relax and may allow you to sleep better.

Since pain and depression can sometimes go together, easing your pain may help with your depression.

Other treatments can also help with painful symptoms. Certain types of focused therapy — like cognitive behavioral — can teach you ways to cope better with the pain.

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