“Vitality” refers to a state of being in which
one feels especially alive. Phrases that capture this state of being include “physical
or mental vigor,” “lived
experience,” or “affirming
a sense of physical or psychological identity.”
When you feel a sense of vitality, rather than simply plodding your way through
life, you feel energized, awake, motivated, and driven to experience every day
with inspired engagement.
For most of us, the feeling of vitality comes
and goes. We might feel it after a workout, following a yoga session, or after
a quick dip in the ocean. It rarely lasts. And for some people, this feeling
disappears altogether. When it does, life becomes mechanical, staid, and
Why does vitality go away? And how can you reconnect with it?
There are, of course, many reasons for vitality
disappearing. Boring tasks, work or
technology overload, interpersonal conflicts, and feeling drained by competing
demands can all contribute to this.
However, I’d like to focus on one particular,
often neglected, cause of disappearing vitality called essential
The Essence of
Essential depression was first described by French
psychoanalyst Pierre Marty. Unlike current
conceptualizations of depression in which people feel sad,
guilty, and melancholy, people with essential
depression do not have any overt symptoms. Instead, metaphorically speaking,
they feel like someone has let the air out of their tires. And this feeling
sometimes stays under the radar until essential depression sets in.
Marty saw essential depression as the essence of
all depressions. Usually, essential depression starts with diffuse anxiety that
follows a loss, the impact of which is understated or not recognized. This
period is followed by reduced vitality, with an operational mental life filled
with current and factual content. In addition, people with essential depression
are action-oriented and conformist. In a sense, it’s a way of “coping,” but it’s
The missing elements in essential depression are
an active imagination and fluid emotions. In addition, people with essential
depression have little interest in processing their own or others’ thoughts and
A More Disorganized Mind
The tricky part about essential depression is
that there are no actual symptoms. Instead, as Marty put it, there is a
canceling out of the psyche that sterilizes one’s impression of who one is.
Called dementalization, this process leads to people overinvesting their energy in facts
and behaviors while ignoring the subtler aspects of their own minds.
According to Marty, a person with essential depression has thoughts and ideas that
are devoid of instinctual, drive-related energy. In part because of their own
frustrations, they ignore their ambitions. As a result, all thoughts become
mechanical and process-oriented. In fact, disconnecting or hiding from one’s
drives and instincts and building a mechanical life, while possibly
“practical,” can eventually spill over to bodily symptoms.
Steps to Combat
What, then, can you do about this state of disintegration? While exercise,
yoga, and swimming provide a temporary respite from essential depression, they’re
not sufficient. Instead, try one of the following exercises to combat essential
1. Integrate your
fantasies. Life is full of ups and
downs. And our minds can’t really absorb the shock of living without fantasy
and imagination. Setting aside time to understand, engage, and integrate your
fantasies is what will protect you from essential depression. In that sense,
fantasies act as a “psychic cushion.”
Fantasies, or “phantasies,” as Freud referred to them, are imagined fulfillments of
frustrated wishes. Sometimes, they appear in dreams. At other times, you even
privately reflect on what this might look like.
Ask yourself, “If I got exactly what I wanted,
how might this change my life?” When you do, you might be surprised that what
you think you want is not what you actually want. Or the vividness of your
imagination might help your brain discover ways to make your fantasies real.
2. Schedule unfocus
material is not always reached through voluntary effort.
It often is not. Aside from dreams and fantasies, preconscious material emerges
while doing something else. Going on a hike, walking down your street, lying in
a hammock, doodling, or simply driving to the local store and taking in the
sunrise can all give you opportunities for this emergence.
In my book “Tinker
Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” I explain how these kinds of activities activate the default
mode network. This brain
network represents much of what is preconscious. Often,
your preconscious wishes are unacceptable, uncomfortable, or even offensive.
The idea is to simply be aware of them and to make time for this to emerge.
3. Do something that you
did as a child. Many of our
preconscious representations come from childhood. For instance, you might
remember trying to make bread with your mother as a child, with a specific
smell of dough that activates a stream of associations. When you “regress” to
earlier stages of development, you give yourself a chance to include these
associations in the matrix of your mind. This allows you to feel “whole.”
4. Change the ways in
which you violate your self. There are many signs
that you have violated your self. Conformism and excessive rationalization and
action are a couple of them. The absence of vitality points to this as well.
Pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once said, “Rape and being eaten by cannibals are mere bagatelles as compared with the violation of the self’s core true self.” Although this is a deep issue to handle without a psychotherapist, you can start by finding the least threatening nonconforming part of your self and expressing it. Jewelry, a tattoo, or music might be avenues to explore.
In this sense, finding vitality outside of essential depression requires recognizing the limits of rational thought and action. Instead, making time for fantasies, paying attention to dreams, and scheduling time to allow your preconscious a presence in your mental representations will allow you to feel more alive. And safe regressions and nonconformist behaviors can help this, too.
Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of
NeuroBusiness Group and the award-winning author of numerous books, including “Tinker
Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear,” and
“Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders.” He also serves as
a part-time assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School,
teaches in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School, and is
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