Black Dog Awareness

Knowledge is power and having a good knowledge of what depressive illness is, how it works and what can cause it is an essential step in controlling your black dog. This page seeks to use expert opinions, fact and studies written in a simple and easy to understand fashion to help give you a better understanding of and greater control over your own personal struggle.

For additional reading I highly recommend your purchase the excellent book by Dr Tim Cantopher “Depressive Illness – The Curse of The Strong”.


Many people wrongly believe that Depression is just a psychological problem, an issue with a person’s mental health. However tests have shown that depression is actually a PHYSICAL condition. One as real and as physical as breaking a bone or having a chest infection etc. People assume it is a simply mental disorder perhaps because it is not clearly visible (at first or to the naked eye) and because it does actually lead people to seemingly change their behaviour and personality but when we look at the brain more closely using specialist equipment and tests it suddenly become clear just how physically different the brain of a depression suffer and that of a person without depression actually look and subsequently behaves.


Without going to much into all the technical and scientific information which many people may not be interested in or understand (those that are interested may wish to order the book DEPRESSIVE ILLNESS – CURSE OF THE STRONG) I will try to explain what you see above.

The brain contains a very special, very delicate and very essential “circuit” known as the Limbic System. This circuit is responsible for many of the body’s functions such as sleep cycles, walking, temperature control and also controls or affects every hormone produced by the body and subsequently controls our mood. The limbic system is basically you body’s thermostat and controls lots of things at once. Rather than events, incidents or any other outside occurrences being responsible for the mood you are in, it is in fact your limbic system.

If we consider a computer or hard drive for a second and think of the internal mechanisms such as the circuit board controlling the cooler fan which when breaks and can cause the system to overheat and ultimately burn out. Just like a computer the brain relies on the limbic system “circuit board” to act as an internal thermostat to help us “keep our cool” and stop us over heating and crashing.

The limbic system, like any other part of the body, can break, it can crash and malfunction. It could be caused by any number of things such as virus or ill health, drugs including medication, alcohol, major or too many life changes and events, too many losses, conflict or major decisions… the list goes on but whatever starts to stress, overload or overheat the limbic system the result is the same, it will begin to malfunction and if ignored can crash.

Still with me?

How this happens is that in order for the limbic system to remain a circuit it relies on “transmitter chemicals” to fill the gaps between nerve endings, thus completing the circuit. Think of these chemicals as the solder in a circuit board. For reasons currently unknown, when the limbic system is overloaded the levels of these chemicals within the brain dramatically reduce and as such the circuit can not be completed and so things grind to a halt.

This grinding to a halt then leads to the early signs and symptoms of depression which we all need to be aware of in ourselves and each other. These symptoms are what separate depression from other states of mind such as unhappiness, sadness and stress. The symptoms make it seem like the body is shutting down slowly and with depression they are worse in the morning. The reason for this is that the body experiences a high peak of the hormone Cortisol in the morning which slowly diminishes throughout the day. With depression though, there is no morning peak and so we begin to feel the following symptoms;-


Sleep or early morning waking
Appetite (sometimes increased instead)
Enthusiasm and enjoyment
Sex drive
Self esteem

It is really an endless list. We begin to get that “I’m not bothered any more” feeling.

I am going to end this blog there as I am conscious it may be a little heavy. I just wanted to briefly try and explain what depression is, how it develops and what the initial signs and symptoms are.

We all need to be fully aware of this and realise that together we can help, together we can dismantle the stigma and myths and together we can help to understand this illness.

You are not alone.


When we look closer at depressive illness in it’s most common form which is depression caused by stress, it is clear to see why in today’s society so many of us are susceptible.

Dr Tim Cantopher, a leading expert in Depressive Illness and author of the excellent book “Depressive Illness – The Curse of The Strong” believes that this form of depression most commonly occurs in people with a very specific set of personality characteristics. He states that people suffering stress related depression will have:

Moral strength
Strong conscience
Strong sense of responsibility
A tendency to focus on the needs of others before their own
Vulnerability to change
Self esteem dependant on the evaluation of others

This person, he says, is the sort of person other people would normally go to with their problems. How he explains it makes perfect sense. If you were to present a lazy or weak person with a set of stresses, then that person, being weak and lazy, would quickly give up and so would not become stressed enough to fall ill. However, you give those same stresses to a strong person and they will work their socks off to overcome the problem, make themselves stressed and keep going till the fuse that is the limbic system blows.


Some of the greatest strong minds in history suffered depressive illness including Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Issac Newton, Edgar Allan Poe and Van Gogh.

Stay strong, but just ease off the power a little. Take some time out for YOU and recharge.


The World Health Organisation has put together this short animated video which explains very well what depression is and how it can impact sufferers. Please take just a moment to watch it and then share it with your friends and family.

BLACK DOG VIDEO (video will open in new window)


Everybody always wants to know who or what is to blame for anything that goes wrong in life. The same applies to depressive illness. Sufferers and non sufferers alike want to know what actually causes depression.

The fact is there are so many reasons and it could be any one or several of them which lead to a person suffering. Every case is different in every way and not a single one of them is because the person is weak or feeble. We have already looked at the fact that depressive illness is the curse of the STRONG.

We will look here at a number of theories as to why we suffer depressive illness.

Suppressing Anger
One theory held by experts is that your anger turns on itself. There are only a few things a person can do with anger. You can openly vent it but that is likely to get you into a lot of trouble or isolate you from friends and family. You can turn it into a vigorous action such as sport, exercise, music, art. Many of the leading men and women in each of these fields are quite angry individuals. You can work to prevent anger building in the first place through assertiveness. That is not aggressiveness, simply being firm and ensuring those around you understand what is and is not acceptable and that you have your needs met.

Another way is to repress your anger and bury it away deep inside. This is what the majority of sufferers do. Many people learn to repress their anger at an early age either at school or at home where showing anger could be seen as weakness (for bullies etc) and so repression becomes a necessary skill which proves difficult to ditch as you get older. This kind of repression of emotions has been particularly evident in people who went to boarding school where any show of emotion or weakness may be used against you by other children and where the love and comfort of a parent is weeks or months away.

If you are not able to vent the anger in any other way and so repress it, it still has to go somewhere and this theory states that it turns on yourself. You begin to blame yourself for anything which seems to be going wrong. You begin working harder and thinking harder to come up with ways to fix the problem and as such your limbic system becomes overloaded resulting ultimately in depression, stress and anxiety.

This process can happen to anybody but is unlikely to occur in people who as a child had plenty of love and who were nurtured.

For parents it is worth bearing in mind that a child does not need “toughening up”. Your child may appear to be getting tougher due to a harsh regime and rules but in fact that is just an illusion. What is actually happening is your child is building weaknesses and vulnerabilities for later in life. What a child really needs is plenty of love, attention, cuddles and affection. Tenderness builds true toughness.

It is worth bearing in mind that if you are a person who represses their emotions then it is likely to come back and bite you later when something goes wrong. Look at the way you operate and go about life. Introduce some methods to release your anger in a safe and controlled manner. Running, Swimming, weight lifting, singing, playing an instrument, painting… the list is endless. Find your safe release and it can make a whole world of difference.

It’s OK to be “just” OK

People today strive to be the best at everything. In such a competitive world it stands to reason that somebody is always going to be better at some things than others. Whether it be sport, work, hobbies or life there are people who push themselves so hard to be the best that ultimately it leads to overloading the limbic system and suffering depression. People need to be realise that it’s perfectly fine to be OK. You do not have to be the best in the world, just the best you can be. Accept that whilst you’re not the worst at whatever it is you do, you may not be the best. Somebody may be better than you, may be luckier and get a better break than you. That does not make you a failure. Be happy with your lot.

For many the feeling of success and achievement is like a drug. They strive to impress others as that makes them feel good about themselves. The more they get, the more they want and when they don’t get it they feel terrible. The search of OKness is not always easy and could mean receiving professional help. It could however be as simple as listening to your friends and family or listening to those who compliment what it is you do and believing what they say. Imagine liking yourself as others like you. This works well because of the old psychological principle that you become the way that you act.

This is considered by many professionals to be the key to preventing depressive episodes. You need to become more OK with yourself and what you have got in life. That is not to say, don’t have ambition and aspirations but rather accept that you can not always win. Accept that being “just” OK is perfectly fine.

Association with past loss

People do not tend to suffer depression the first time something bad happens in their life. Children for example are very good at adapting to what life throws at them and moving on after a brief period of upset without seemingly suffering any long term issue.

An example used by Dr Tim Cantopher is that of a 12 year old girl who loses her father to cancer. She will not immediately become depressed. She may become clingy, bad behaved and resentful for a period of time but usually, if handled well, she will move on after a period of mourning and grieving and live her life without anything more serious than missing her father over the years.

Move forward 20yrs and the same girl is made redundant from her well paid job. This is not the same as losing a parent in any way shape or form, however, the loss of security, of money and the loss felt by the now 32yr old woman reminds her of the same loss she felt at 12yrs old when her father died. The feelings she repressed as a child because she didn’t know how or was to afraid to grieve have now resurface and she is facing a loss of confidence, self esteem and panic. She becomes depressed.

The best way to avoid this says Dr Cantopher is to LISTEN to your mind, your body and your emotions and take them seriously. Many people from children to adults berate themselves when they suffer a loss and state they are being “silly” and that they “need to get a grip”. They would rather try and repress their emotions and put on an act, a brave face, than actually face up to the loss and grieve properly. They struggle on, overloading their limbic system and as a result they begin suffering depressive illness.

Believe in and listen to your feelings and think where they may be coming from. Talk to somebody about them and never be afraid to express them.

Probably one of the most interesting theories as to why humans suffer depression comes again from Dr Tim Cantopher in his book DEPRESSIVE ILLNESS.

When an animal encounters hostility it has two choices; carry on regardless or retreat. Fight or flight. Those that chose the former, died out long ago. Survival of the fittest or most sensible. Continuing to search for food in a bitter cold winter leads to starvation, but those sensible enough to stock up and turn in for winter have a much greater chance of survival. Over time natural selection removed the choice to do this and hibernation occurs naturally in animals.

Whilst primates, humans included, have learned to override this process by adapting our environment maybe they too still experience the hibernation response during times of hostility.

Animal behaviourist long ago discovered that animals who seemingly suffer a depressive state automatically and naturally lower their metabolism to the same extent lower primates do when entering hibernation.

When you think about it properly it makes sense. Hibernation gives a strong natural selection advantage. Natural selection for humans has stopped. There are not many things that kill you before child-bearing age now which is what natural selection works on so just like many other things humans possess and don’t need such as the appendix and tonsils, we still have this natural mechanism for hibernation.

Could it be that the price we humans pay for having such an advance brain, especially the emotional part of the brain which is massive and includes the limbic system is that when we experience the hibernation mechanism we also experience greater pain and suffering?

We know that parts of the brain affected in animals during hibernation are the same as the parts of the brain affected in humans suffering depression. We know too that cortisol levels are raised both in hibernating animals and in depressed humans.

If depression is the body switching to protective hibernation mode in response to hostile situations making you stop when your body really needs you too could it be preventing you developing high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes in the future asks Dr Cantopher.

“If so could you prevent it by taking appropriate action at the time? I think so. If you give in and stop soon enough when faced with stress, you won’t get ill”