What the Heck is “Euthymia”, and Why Should I Care?

Before getting into details, let’s make note of this: I’m altering the definition of the term as a way of creating a framework that allows us to look at something we don’t hear enough about in psychology and counseling- what is healthy!  We’re great at discussing “issues”, what’s “wrong”, what’s “unhealthy”, “mental illness” and etc, but we’re not so great at talking about the opposite!  Something to work toward, identification of what’s mentally, emotionally, and “spiritually” healthy, is a great way to change our feelings and our lives.

Oversimplifying, “euthymia” is a medical term, a term most often used in psychology, psychiatry, or philosophy to describe happiness or wellness.  Wikipedia separates out euthymia in terms of medicine, and philosophy.  In both, it is used to describe a “non depressed” mood, or “world perception” or “view” (Weltanschauung) as noted by the famous Greek philosopher Democritus.  Wordnik, a preferred website of librarians and info scientists for definitions of terms, defines euthymia as: “n. Philosophical cheerfulness and calm; the avoidance of disturbing passions, as inculcated by Democritus and Epicurus.”

As anyone who knows or has worked with me can imagine, I prefer the more global definition, the one hinted at in philosophy.  As promised, I’d offer that euthymia as a term might be most useful if looked at this way: an emotional response that is reasonable, adaptive, and of “right size” intensity, in response to one’s current circumstances.  In short, a healthy emotional response to one’s current circumstances.  Or (again, oversimplifying), a way of knowing that one has a healthy emotional response to the world.

Let’s start by thinking about what might be some indicators of an unhealthy response to the world, commonly understood by the medical and psychological communities.  Someone experiencing a “low grade” depression for an extended period of time might be diagnosed with “dysthymia”.  These symptoms being present, in absence of “psychosocial stressors” (AKA “problems” in life…), is arguably an indicator of something south of optimum health.  Without anything “bad” happening, to be “depressed” is regarded as unhealthy by most helping professions.  In a like way, being “sad” or “depressed” in a way that prevents us from doing things in our lives (work, play, relationships…) about something that happened say, 10 years ago is arguably not a healthy response to what is happening now.  To exaggerate to make the point, in schizophrenia (literally to be “split from reality”), this is an extreme version, the opposite of “euthymia”.  More specifically, if one is seeing things (having visual hallucinations, a common symptom of schizophrenia), I sometimes like to describe this as a response that’s not euthymic.

One of my goals as a therapist is for all of my clients… people who are depressed, anxious, have low self esteem, addicts, codependents, whoever- to have a reasonable, here and now response to their given circumstance.  If we behave for instance, based on old hurts to a current circumstance we tend to at best not be able to resolve either issue, at worst, make one or more of those issues more difficult.  Another way of saying this is that, if I experience a perceived sleight (someone makes fun of me, forgets a “small” responsibility to me, etc), but respond to that with isolation, threats, emotional blackmail, substance use or etc, this isn’t a “right size” response- it’s not euthymic.  Knowing that we are not having a “euthymic” response in this example, or as a way of problem solving, can help a lot in terms of dealing with our problems as right size, and might enable us to problem solve more effectively.  For someone suffering from anxiety, low self esteem, depression, addiction and more, this can be a great tool to start on the road of dealing with our current circumstance as it is.

Going back to some more painful considerations, I would suggest that in taking the example of the death or similar loss of a loved one or animal or etc, being sad is a euthymic response.  Just as our body has less than comfortable sensations in response to illness or injury- these are indicators of recovery from them.  Why don’t we see our relationship with our feelings in a similar light?  As an example of this, when we fall off a bike and skin our knee, most of us who know a little about science know that much of the reason it hurts is because of the inflammatory process- this is due to the healing and protective agents of our bodies (white blood cells to fight off infection, proteins to rebuild the part, fluids for transport of these materials and etc…) being sent to heal the injured part.  It hurts both as an indicator for us to know not to do that again, but as much, because it is healing.  Endlessly interesting to me, humans don’t see their non physical feelings, their emotions, in the same light.  We regard them as something terrible, something to be avoided.  It seems to me that we have them because they give us other information about our environment that we might not otherwise discern from our other senses, and a way of healing other aspects of our lives- hurts, shames, losses and etc.  It’s not to say that our feelings are all necessarily facts, but indicators of possible realities (more on this idea from my blog here).

If the above paragraph is any indicator, in many circumstances, having “bad” feelings might be the process of dealing with non physical difficulties.  Extreme (in terms of intensity) or maladaptive (not useful) responses to these create in turn more problems, and in some cases, diagnosable difficulties.  Having the idea of euthymia as a guidepost, it might give us a more tangible way of gauging our problem solving, behavior, and more.

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