What Does The Metaphor "Black Dog" Mean Concerning Depression?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban
Updated October 3, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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The term "black dog" is often used in conversations about depression. For many people, this metaphor describes a state of depression characterized by sadness or lack of will, including the loss of desire to partake in activities you once loved. This metaphor can be helpful for adults and children living with depression and those with loved ones experiencing symptoms. The image of a large, intrusive black dog may more clearly identify the often difficult-to-see aspects of depression.

Are You Worried About Depression Affecting Your Life?

What Is "The Black Dog?" 

The "black dog" metaphor was initially a phrase sometimes used to describe a brief period in a person's life. However, the metaphor has grown to encompass a spectrum of depression and its symptoms. For some, the metaphor of the black dog is effective because depression can feel like an ominous, long-suffering presence tracking your every move, like an ominous black dog. 

This metaphor can represent the gradual overtaking of enjoyable activities you once loved, the person you once recognized in the mirror, or the life you once lived. The metaphor represents how depression does not take breaks but may feel like a following shadow– a large, lumbering shadow as loyal as a canine. At its inception, though, the black dog was not as profound or scary of a metaphor. 

The Origin Of The Depression "Black Dog" Metaphor 

In 1776, Dr. Samuel Johnson, the inventor of the English Dictionary, was the first to use the term black dog about the melancholy and depression he experienced as someone diagnosed with clinical depression. The phrase was later popularized by Winston Churchill, who was often quoted as referring to a "black dog" when he felt unmotivated, churlish, or otherwise unproductive and unable to write stories. The black dog was said to have been the source of melancholy, as well, and took the blame for some of Churchill's stumbling blocks and moments of inactivity.

Over time, the "black dog" grew as a symbol for Churchill. Many amateurs and mental health professionals pointed to this term and its corresponding behaviors as a sign of Churchill's poor mental health, speculating he may have had depression or bipolar disorder. Although there is no definitive evidence that Winston Churchill had a mental illness– and one therapist disputed these claims – his descriptor persists as a powerful, insightful window into the lives of adults and children who experience the symptoms of depression.

Why Use The "Black Dog" Metaphor? 

The metaphor of the black dog can benefit individuals who have been diagnosed with depression and those who have not because it provides both with a frame of reference for how depression might show up. Depression comes with many stigmas and misconceptions in the media. However, using the metaphor of a black dog can allow you and others to see that depression is not a matter of needing a mindset change or a pep talk; it often feels like an outside entity, wholly out of your control.

For many, depression is like a large black dog's persistence in following you around, eating your shoes, or taking up your time. Depression is often uncontrollable and may require time and treatment to address. Some individuals experiencing the "black dog" of depression may benefit from therapy, lifestyle changes, medication, or a mixture of treatments to keep symptoms manageable and under control.

Note that the "black dog" is a metaphor. If you are seeing a black dog that is not visible to others, you may be living with hallucinations. Reach out to a therapist or psychiatrist for further guidance with managing this symptom. 

Getty/AnnaStills

What Is Depression?

There are multiple depressive disorders listed in the DSM-5, but major depressive disorder is most commonly the type referred to as "clinical depression." Depression of any type is a mood disorder wherein the body and brain do not produce the "feel-good" chemicals required to control mood, sleep, appetite, and positive thinking. Symptoms of depression can include the following:

  • Under or oversleeping
  • Appetite changes 
  • Muscle weakness
  • Thoughts of suicide* 
  • Despair
  • Irritability
  • Stomach pain 
  • Headaches
  • A profound sadness that doesn't go away 
  • A loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Feeling "numb" or apathetic 
  • Difficulty performing self-care 

*If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 

Depression symptoms can be mild or severe, depending on the diagnosis. Periods of sadness, anger, or apathy can be expected in people who have experienced a sudden loss, a traumatic event, or similar events. However, persistent sadness, anger, and apathy lasting more than two weeks may be attributed to depression. Depression may initially be mild. However, without treatment, symptoms can worsen and develop into a chronic condition called dysthymia, which can last over two years. 

There are many possible reasons for depression, and it is unknown why it develops in some people and not others who have had similar experiences. Minimizing risk factors may be one way to reduce the impact of depressive disorders. People may also find minor relief from lifestyle changes, social support, or self-care. 

Who Does Depression Affect?

Depression affects as many as 1 in 13 adults in the US. The condition is more likely to affect individuals going through significant life changes, such as reaching adulthood, quitting or starting a job, or losing a loved one. Depression is also more likely to affect individuals who do not have a solid support system and may be more common among people who have experienced significant breaks within familial or friendship ties.

Depression does not seem to have particular risk factors based on socioeconomic status, race, or religion, as people of all ages and backgrounds can experience the symptoms of depression. Across the board, depression often requires an amount of treatment and should be diagnosed by a mental health professional. In addition, if you're considering starting, changing, or stopping a medication or medical treatment for depression, reach out to a medical doctor like a psychiatrist or primary care physician. 

Are You Worried About Depression Affecting Your Life?

Treatment For Depressive Disorders

There are many treatment options for depression. Talk therapy is often considered first, as it is a non-invasive form of treatment that can allow clients to describe their experiences and needs with a professional. Talk therapy may also provide the source of diagnosis, as many therapists use conversation and treatment methods to rule out specific diagnoses. A popular form of talk therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help clients challenge unhealthy or unproductive thinking patterns to improve overall mental health and behavior. Below are a few options for treatment. 

Medication 

Severe or persistent depression is often treated with medications that target the chemical and biological mechanisms involved in depression, working to bring those systems back in balance to support a healthy, well-functioning mind. They are often used in conjunction with other treatments, and it may take some time to find a medication that works well for you. Because medications may worsen symptoms before improving them, work closely with a doctor to ensure dosage and frequency are effective.  

In addition, consult with your doctor or primary care physician before considering any medication options. Psychologists, therapists, and counselors cannot prescribe or manage medications. However, a psychiatrist can work with you to devise a medication plan that works for you.

Treatment-Resistant Depression Treatments

When someone with a depressive disorder has tried multiple medications or forms of therapy without results, they may be living with treatment-resistant depression. People experiencing this form of depression may have a few treatment options, including: 

  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) 
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
  • Ketamine 
  • Vagus-nerve stimulation devices
  • Clinical trials 

If you're struggling with your depression, you're not alone. Talk to your doctor or therapist about the above treatment options and how you might access them.

Healthy Diet And Lifestyle Modifications

Although not an official treatment, diet and lifestyle modifications can reduce symptom severity for some individuals. Altering the types of food you eat can support physical health, aiding your mind in functioning at total capacity. For instance, a diet high in processed sugar and refined foods could contribute to the onset and proliferation of depression. 

In contrast, a diet filled with whole, fresh foods can give your mind and body the physical support and nourishment it needs to function optimally in the short and long term. Eliminating or dramatically reducing alcohol consumption can also help reduce the symptoms of depression, as alcohol is a depressive substance.

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes, as some alterations to your lifestyle can significantly impact how your body and brain behave. For instance, a sedentary lifestyle has been linked to health concerns, including mood dysfunction. Exercising for ten minutes per day can improve your mental and physical health. Getting outside in nature can also help, as a lack of fresh air and sun exposure can be problematic for someone working toward recovery. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Online Therapy For Depression

If you don't find relief from traditional in-person therapy, online therapy might be effective. Research shows it can significantly reduce depression symptoms. For example, one study found that online therapy was more effective than traditional in-person sessions, with most participants in the online group showing continued symptom reduction three months after treatment. On the other hand, individuals in the face-to-face group showed significantly worsened depressive symptoms over the same period. 

If you struggle with depression, leaving home or commuting to a therapy session can be difficult. In these cases, online therapy services with a platform like BetterHelp could be a solution. Online therapy platforms allow you to reach trained professionals and their expert therapy services from the comfort of your home at any time of the day. You can also be in contact with them more constantly, which can be a comfort during the tough times when you may hope to speak with a trusted professional. 

“Andrew's counseling style is the epitome of the personal touch! He is smart, professional, caring, and compassionate. He imparts his professional knowledge in such a way that you feel like you are talking to a trusted friend, which makes you feel comfortable talking about deeply personal subjects. When I was feeling very depressed, he was there with encouraging words to help me start to think more positively and he messages you every couple of days, just to check in with you!! With his personal experiences, advice, and goal-setting techniques, I feel like he went above and beyond for me EVERY session!”

“Susan is a compassionate and kind person. You can tell her anything without judgment. She listens intently, with no interruptions, and gives neutral feedback to help anxious and depressed people view their own emotions with neutrality.”

Takeaway

After receiving a diagnosis of a depressive disorder, therapy may be the first step. There are over 400 therapy modalities, so there are many ways to receive support. Many people with depression benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy, humanistic therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, or another form of counseling. In some cases, medication may be recommended by a medical doctor to treat your symptoms. A holistic approach, including medication and therapy simultaneously, can also be effective. 

The depression "black dog" is often used as a metaphor to describe how depression might feel to someone with the condition. However, the black dog does not necessarily need to be feared, pushed away, or admonished. Instead, the black dog gives you and those around you a name and a face for the overwhelming apathy or sadness you might feel with your condition.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

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