Understanding The Metaphorical "Black Dog": Depression And How It Works

By Corrina Horne

Updated July 10, 2019

When the phrase "black dog" is used, minds typically leap to depression-or perhaps a certain beloved book character. Whichever is the case, the term "black dog" is most commonly used to describe a state of depression, characterized by either poor behavior, or the lack of will to do anything, including things you once loved. This metaphor can be useful for both depression patients and those with loved ones experiencing depression, as the image of a large, intrusive black dog can more clearly identify the often difficult-to-see aspects of depression.

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What was initially a small phrase uttered to describe a brief period in a man's life has grown to encompass a massive spectrum of depression and its symptoms. The black dog is an effective metaphor because depression can feel like an ominous, long-suffering presence tracking your every move. The black dog of depression represents the gradual overtaking of the things you once loved, the person you once recognized in the mirror, or the life you once lived. Depression does not take breaks but instead follows you around like a shadow-a large, lumbering shadow, loyal as a canine. At its inception, though, the black dog was not quite so insidious.

Origin Of The Depression Black Dog

The term is said to have originated with Winston Churchill, who was often quoted as referring to a "black dog" when he was feeling unmotivated, churlish, or otherwise unproductive. 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 something of a symbol for Churchill, with many amateurs and mental health professionals alike pointing to this term and its corresponding behaviors as an indicator of Churchill's poor mental health, ranging from depression to bipolar disorder. Although there is no definitive evidence that Winston Churchill suffered from a mental illness of any kind-and indeed, one therapist actively disputed these claims-his descriptor persists as a powerful, insightful window into the lives of men and women who experience the symptoms of depression.

Why This Metaphor Is Important

The metaphor of the black dog is an important one both for individuals who have been diagnosed with depression and those who haven't because it provides both with a frame of reference for how exactly to expect depression to show up. Depression is depicted in media and among people in many ways, ranging from sadness to a simple enough problem that you can just "get over." Using the metaphor of a black dog, however, allows you (and others) to see that depression isn't a matter of needing a simple mindset change, or a pep talk; it feels like an outside entity, wholly out of your control.

Just as a large black dog's persistence in following you around, eating your shoes, or taking up your time with its insistence is out of your control, depression is largely uncontrollable, and requires both time and treatment in order to begin to fade-though some will require therapy, lifestyle changes, or medication-or all three-for the entirety of their lives, to keep symptoms manageable and under control.

How Does Depression Work?

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Depression is a mood disorder, wherein the body and brain do not produce the "feel-good" chemicals required to effectively regulate mood, sleep, regulate appetite, and even think clearly, which can lead to symptoms of depression, such as apathy, under or oversleeping, loss of interest in food, too great an interest in food, muscle weakness, thoughts of suicide or despair, and irritability. These are just a few of the symptoms ascribed to depression, and they can all be either mild or severe or a patchwork of both.

Although periods of sadness, anger, or apathy are normal in people who have experienced a sudden loss, a traumatic event, or something similar, persistent feelings of sadness, anger, and apathy-those that last at least two weeks or more-may be attributed to depression. Depression may initially be mild (called Major Depressive Disorder), but without treatment, symptoms can grow worse and develop into a chronic condition called Persistent Depressive Disorder, which means that a depressive state has persisted for at least two years.

There are many possible reasons for depression, and there is still some mystery surrounding why it develops in some people and not in others, with similar risk factors in place. Minimizing risk factors is certainly worth the effort, though, and engaging in a healthy lifestyle can go a long way in mitigating some of the likelihood of developing a depressive disorder.

Who Does Depression Affect

Depression is said to affect as many as 1 in 13 adults, though many will not seek treatment. Depression is more likely to affect individuals who are going through major 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.

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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 requires some amount of treatment and should never be diagnosed or treated entirely at home.

How Is Depression Treated?

There are many treatment options for depression. Typically, the first type of treatment is therapy. Talk therapy is a common treatment for depression, as it allows patients to describe what they are going through, and better understand their own experiences and needs. Talk therapy is also likely to be the source of diagnosis, as many therapists will prefer to weed out all possibilities before assigning a concrete diagnosis to a patient. Talk therapy includes Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which seeks to reset unhealthy or unproductive patterns of thinking to improve overall mental health and stability.

Depression may also be treated with antidepressants. Antidepressants look at the chemical and biological mechanisms involved in depression and work to get those systems back in balance in order to support a healthy, well-functioning body. Antidepressants are often used in conjunction with other treatments and may take some time to find a medication that works well for you, and a dosage that takes care of your needs. Because antidepressants can worsen symptoms before improving them, it is important to work closely with a mental health professional to make sure dosage and frequency are as effective for your needs as possible. Dosages and frequency may need to be altered several times to find the right balance for you.

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Diet is another area in which depression can be managed, through diet alone is unlikely to relieve symptoms. Instead, altering your food intake can support physical health, which can in turn aid your mind is functioning at its best. A diet high in processed sugar and refined foods, for instance, could contribute to the onset and proliferation of depression, while a diet filled with whole, fresh foods can help give your mind and body the physical support and nourishment it needs to function optimally. Eliminating or dramatically reducing alcohol can also be useful in limiting the effects of depression, as alcohol is actually a depressive substance.

Lifestyle changes may also be recommended by your doctor, as some alterations to your lifestyle can have a significant impact on how your body and brain behave. A sedentary lifestyle, for instance, has been linked to a host of health problems, including mood dysfunction. Exercising as little as ten minutes per day can help improve your mental and physical health. Getting outside in nature can also help, as the constant barrage of screens and media-and lack of fresh air-can be problematic for someone working toward recovery and improved health.

What Next?

After receiving a diagnosis of a depressive disorder, the first step is therapy. Therapy runs the gamut and may be simple talk therapy, or maybe trauma therapy, such as EMDR. Therapy could be a combination of cognitive therapy, antidepressants, diet, and lifestyle alterations, or may focus primarily on psychotherapy and pharmaceutical intervention. Although there is still some stigma surrounding pharmaceutical treatment of mood disorders, antidepressants can mean the difference between living your life richly and stumbling through it in a fog. A holistic approach-one that includes all areas of treatment-is often the most effective form of treatment.

The depression "black dog" has come to be a mascot of sorts for depression and can open a window of conversation into depression and its symptoms. The black dog is not something that needs to be feared, pushed away, or admonished. Instead, the black dog gives you and those around you a name and a face for the overwhelm apathy, and anxiety depression is often accompanied by. It can break down language barriers to get better help, better treatment, and a greater understanding of the obstacles you face every day in living with and overcoming depression.


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