Psychopathology of depression and mania: symptoms, phenomena and syndromes

Psychopathology of depression and mania: symptoms, phenomena and syndromes


Fuchs Karl Jaspers Professor of Philosophy and Psychiatry, Head of the Section Phenomenological Psychopathology, Psychiatric Department, University of Heidelberg



The paper gives a phenomenological account of depression and mania in terms of body, space, temporality and intersubjectiv- ity. While the lived body is normally embedded into the world and mediates our relations to others, depression interrupts this embodied contact to the world. Local or general oppression condenses the fluid lived body to a solid, heavy “corporeal body”. Instead of expressing the self, the body is now turned into a barrier to all impulses directed to the environment. This impairs the patient’s interaction and affective attunement with others, resulting in a general sense of detachment, separation or even segregation. Depression is then further interpreted as the result of a desynchronisation, i.e. an uncoupling in the tem-

poral relation between the patient and his social environment. This concept leads to some suggestions regarding a “resynchro- nisation therapy” for affective disorders. Conversely, mania is phenomenologically described as a centrifugal dispersion of the lived body, characterised by a general lightness, expansion and disinhibition. In the temporal dimension, the manic desynchro- nisation from the environment manifests itself in a lack of rhyth- micity and constant acceleration of lived  time.




Phenomenological psychopathology has a long tradition of describing and analysing the subjective experience of affective disorders, and in particular, melancholic depres- sion. These analyses have mostly focused on dimensions such temporality, spatiality, personality or identity 1-7. A basic assumption of the phenomenological approach is that the psychopathologist should methodically suspend any assumptions about causal explanations of a disorder, be it psychological or biological, and instead try to grasp the patient’s experience as best as possible. The aim of this approach is not just a thorough description, however, but an analysis of the basic structures of experience that are altered in mental illness. This alteration often takes place on a prereflective level and thus may not be im- mediately accessible to, and verbalised by, the patients themselves.

The following description tries to link these basic struc- tures of experience, i.e. body, space and time with inter- subjective aspects in order to give an integrated picture of the depressive and manic condition. To begin with, a few remarks on the general phenomenology of affectivity and the lived body are necessary in order to prepare the ground for the description of affective disorders.

Moods, emotions and the lived body

In contrast to the common cognitivist picture in which mental states and emotions are located within our head, phenomenology regards emotions as embodied relations to the world, and in particular, as residing in-between individuals 8. Human beings do not have moods or emo- tions independent of their relations and interactions with others. First, moods are not inner states, but permeate and tinge the whole field of experience. Being atmospheric in nature, they radiate through the environment like warmth or cold, and confer corresponding affective qualities on the whole situation 9. On the other hand, moods also in- clude certain background feelings of the body, such as lightness and freshness in elation or mania, or weariness and heaviness in boredom, sadness, or depression. This background may also consist of what Ratcliffe has termed existential feelings: feelings of wideness or restriction, freedom or imprisonment, vulnerability or protection, fa- miliarity or estrangement, feeling alive or feeling dead 10. Similarly, emotions are ways of being in the world; they emerge on the basis of a prereflective attunement with others, indicating the current state of our relations, inter- ests and conflicts, and manifest themselves as attitudes and expressions of the body. There is no emotion with- out bodily sensations, bodily resonance and affectability.

Of course, when I am moved by an emotion, I may not even be aware of my body; yet being afraid, for instance, is not possible without feeling a bodily tension or trem- bling, a beating of the heart or a shortness of breath, and a tendency to withdraw. In short, the body is a “reso- nance body”, a most sensitive sounding board in which interpersonal and other “vibrations” constantly reverber- ate 8 11 12.

Kinaesthesia is an important component of this reso- nance. Emotions are dynamic forces that motivate and move us in our ongoing interactions with the environ- ment, inducing us to move towards or away from some- thing or someone, or to behave in more specific ways. In this view, emotions are first and foremost embodied motivations to action 13. As such, they are not only felt from the inside, but also displayed and visible in expres- sion and behavior, often as bodily tokens or rudiments of action. The facial, gestural and postural expression of a feeling is part of the bodily resonance that feeds back into the feeling itself, but also induces processes of inter- bodily resonance 14. Our body is affected by the other’s expression, and we experience the kinetics, intensity and timing of his emotions through our own bodily kinaesthe- sia and sensation. This results in a continuous interplay of both partners’ expression and impression, mediating a pre-reflective reciprocal understanding which Merleau- Ponty termed “intercorporeality” 15; it may be regarded as the bodily basis of affective attunement with others or empathy.

In this context, it is important to note the distinction of the subjective and the objective body (also termed “lived” vs. “corporeal” body, or Leib vs. Körper) as conceptualised by the phenomenologic tradition 16 17. The lived body means the body as the medium of all our experience, or in other words, our embodied being-in-the-world: in everyday life, I perceive, act and exist through my body, without explicitly reflecting on it. The body withdraws from my awareness to the same degree as it mediates my relation to the world. The corporeal body, on the other hand, is the material, anatomical object of physiology and medicine that can be observed and grasped. It ap- pears in my own experience whenever the lived-body loses its “taken for granted”, mediating role and becomes obstinate or fragile, as for example in the experience of heaviness, fatigue, clumsiness, injury, or illness. The lived-body turns into the objective body whenever I be- come aware of it in an impeding or embarrassing way. Having been a bodily being without taking notice before,

I now realise that I have a material (clumsy, vulnerable, finite, etc.) body. In the tradition of phenomenology, we can say that the lived body is the body that I am, whereas the corporeal body is the body that I have 16.


The phenomenology of depression: body, space, time and intersubjectivity

On this background, we may now start to describe the phenomenology of depressive and manic experience.  In short, the depressive state may be characterised by a general constriction or “congealment” of the lived body, leading to a numbing of emotional resonance and loss of attunement. This alters the patient’s existential feel- ings of being-with-others, resulting in a general sense of detachment, segregation, or even expulsion. In this way, the lived body also expresses the experiences of loss and separation which usually trigger depressive episodes on a psychosocial level.



In severe depression, the lived body loses the lightness, fluidity and mobility of a medium and turns into a heavy, solid body which puts up resistance to all intentions  and impulses directed towards the world. The depres- sive patient experiences an oppression and constriction that may focus on single areas of the body (e.g. feeling of an armour or tyre around the chest, of a lump in the throat, pressure in the head) or also manifest itself in a diffuse anxiety, an overall bodily rigidity (“anxiety” is de- rived from the latin “angustiae” which means “narrows”, “constriction”). The materiality, density and weight of the body, otherwise suspended and unnoticed in eve- ryday performance, now come to the forefront and are felt painfully. In this respect, depression closely resem- bles somatic illnesses such as infections that affect one’s overall bodily state. Corresponding reports from patients may well be elicited provided that the interviewer takes their bodily experience serious: they will complain about feelings of fatigue, exhaustion, paralysis, aches, sickness, nausea, numbness, etc. 18. Moreover, in depression the exchange of body and environment is blocked, and drive and impulse are exhausted. In summary, depression may be described as a reification or corporealisation of the lived body 7 a: “My body became inert, heavy and bur- densome. Every gesture was hard” – “I couldn’t escape the awful confines of my leaden body and downcast eye. I didn’t want to live, but I couldn’t bear to die” 19.

The constriction and encapsulation of the body corre- sponds to the psychosocial experiences that typically lead to depression. These are experiences of a disruption of relations and bonds, including the loss of relevant others or of important social roles, further situations of a back- log in one’s duties, falling short of one’s aspirations, or social defeat 3 20. These situations of social separation or defeat are perceived as particularly threatening since the patients feel they do not have the necessary resources for coping (“learned helplessness”) 21. Depression is the con- sequent psychophysiological reaction: on the biological level, it involves a pattern of neurobiological, metabolic, immunological, biorhythmic and other organismic dys- functions which are equivalent to a partial decoupling or separation between organism and environmentb. These dysfunctions are subjectively experienced as a loss of drive and interest (anhedonia), psychomotor inhibition, bodily constriction and depressive mood.


a This description refers to the most frequent type of severe depression that is characterised by psychomotor inhibition. There is another type with prevailing agitation and anxiety (“agitated depression”) in which the patients experience the same constriction but the loss of drive is less marked, so that they try in vain to escape from their tormenting bodily state by aimless activity.


Constriction of sensorimotor space

The constriction thus described continues in sensorimo- tor space. Sense perception and movement are weakened and finally walled in by the general rigidity which is also visible in the patient’s gaze, face, or gestures.

Perception is characterised by a loss of alertness and sympathetic sensation: patients may describe a loss of taste, a dullness of colours, or muffled sounds as if heard from afar. Their senses are not able to vividly participate in the environment, their gaze gets tired and empty, their interest and attention weakens. They can only passively receive what comes from outside.

Movement, on the other hand, is marked by psychomo- tor inhibition: gestures, speech and actions are reduced, only mechanically produced, and lack normal energy.  A bowed posture, lowered head and leaden heaviness show the dominance of forces pressing downwards. In order to act, patients have to overcome the inhibition and to push themselves to even minor tasks, compensating by a high effort of will which the body does not have of its own accord any more. Consequently, the external aims and objects withdraw from the patient; using Heidegger’s terms, they are not “ready-to-hand” any more, but only “there”  (zuhanden  vs. vorhanden).

All this means that the body’s space shrinks to the nearest environment, culminating in depressive stupor. The pa- tient cannot transcend the body’s boundaries any longer which is what we normally do when we are looking at and desiring things, reaching for them, walking towards our goals, and thus anticipating the immediate future. As we can see, subjective space and time are intercon- nected: the extension of space around me and the an- ticipation of what is possible or what is to come are one and the same thing. For the depressive person, however, space is not embodied any longer; there is a gap between the body and its surroundings. This in turn reinforces the bodily constriction and enclosure mentioned above.


Intercorporality and interaffectivity

The bodily constriction results not only in felt oppres- sion, anxiety, or heaviness, but more subtly, in a loss of the inter-bodily resonance which mediates the empathic understanding in social encounters. The depressive body lacks emotional expression and offers no clue for the other’s empathic perception. The continuous synchroni- sation of bodily gestures and gazes that normally accom- panies interaction breaks down. The patients themselves realise this congealment of their expression; moreover, their own empathic perception and resonance with the other’s body is lacking 22-24. Thus, they feel unable to emotionally communicate their experience and try in vain to compensate for the loss of attunement by stereo- typed repetition of their complaints.

The loss of bodily resonance or affectability concerns, more generally, the experience of affective valences and atmospheres in the surroundings. In milder forms this becomes manifest in a loss of interest, pleasure and desire. But the deeper the depression, the more the at- tractive qualities of the environment faint. Patients are no longer capable of being moved and affected by things, situations, or other persons. This leads to an inability to feel emotions or atmospheres at all, which is all the more painful as it is not caused by mere apathy or indifference (as for example in frontal brain injury), but by the tor- menting bodily constriction and rigidity. Kurt Schneider wrote that the “vital disturbances” of bodily feelings in severe depression – anxiety, oppression, heaviness, ex- haustion – are so intense that psychic or “higher” feelings can no longer arise 25. Patients then complain of a “feel- ing of not feeling” and of not being able to sympathise with their relatives any more. In his autobiographical ac- count, Solomon describes his depression as “… a loss of feeling, a numbness, [which] had infected all my human relations. I didn’t care about love; about my work; about family; about friends …” 26. Hence, patients lose partici- pation in the shared space of affective attunement.

Of course, there are emotions that remain despite the loss of affectability, in particular feelings of guilt, anxiety, or despair. However, these emotions show some character- istic features: (1) they do not connect, but rather separate the subject from the world and from the others; (2) their felt bodily quality is characterised by constriction and rigidity, thus corresponding to the overall depressive state of cor- porealisation; (3) they are embedded in the prevailing de- pressed mood rather than arising as independent feelings; therefore, their intentional objects are just as ubiquitous as arbitrary. A depressive patient describes what may be called an elementary, bodily experience of guilt:

“It comes from below, from the gut, like a terrible op- pression rising to the chest; then a pressure arises, like a crime that I have committed. I feel it like a wound on my chest, that is my tortured conscience … then this attracts my memories, and I have to think again of all that I have missed or done wrong in my life…” 6.

This shows that an elementary feeling of being guilty can be rooted in bodily experience itself and only secondar- ily materialises in corresponding, yet arbitrary memories of omissions or failures 1. Similarly, the bodily state of diffuse, vital anxiety finds its concrete objects in all kinds of imagined disaster (financial ruin, lethal disease, etc.), which the patient anticipates as inevitable. The simulta- neity of a loss of affectability and the presence of anxiety or guilt feelings, contradictory at first sight, can thus be explained by their mood-congruent, bodily character. In severe or psychotic stages of depression, such constrict- ing emotions turn into continuous states of agony, and it may be doubted whether they could still be called emo- tions at all.


b This comes about through a prolonged organismic stress reaction, affecting, above all, the CRH-ACTH-cortisol system, the sym- pathetic nervous system as well as the serotonin-transmitter regulation in the limbic system, and resulting in a desynchronisation of diurnal hormone and sleep-wake cycles (Wehr & Goodwin 1983, Berger et al. 2003).



Derealisation  and depersonalisation

Since the affective contact to the environment is also essential for our basic sense of reality and belonging to the world, a loss of body resonance always results in a certain degree of derealisation and depersonalisation. Therefore, affective depersonalisation is a core-feature of severe depressive episodes 5 27. Patients do not experi- ence sadness, mourning or grief; they rather feel empty, blunt, dull, or rigid. However, there is a special kind of melancholic depression in which depersonalisation is the prominent symptom; in German psychopathology it is called “Entfremdungsdepression” (depersonalised de- pression) 28. Here the emotional quality of perception is lost completely, objects look blunt or dead, and space seems emptied, as in the following reports:

“Everything around me seems far away, shady and some- how unreal – like in a strange dream” (own clinic, T.F.). “I feel detached from all people, like an outcast in       a gloomy world. I am unable to participate in life any more” (own clinic, T.F.).

“There is only emptiness around me; it fills the space between me and my husband; instead of conducting it keeps me away”c.

Patients feel like isolated objects in a world without re- lationships; there is only an abstract space around them, not a lived, embodied space any more. Perception only shows the naked framework of objects, not their connect- edness or their “flesh”. The depersonalisation in severe depression culminates in so-called nihilistic delusion or Cotard’s syndrome, formerly called “melancholia anaes- thetica” 29. Patients no longer sense their own body; taste, smell, even the sense of warmth or pain are missing, eve- rything seems dead. Having lost the background feeling of the body that conveys a sense of connectedness and realness to our experience, patients may contend that the whole world is empty or does not exist anymore. This lets them conclude that they have already died and ought to be buried: a 61-year-old patient felt that her inner body, her stomach and bowels had been contracted so that there was no hollow space left. The whole body, she said, was dried out and decayed, nothing inside moved any more. The body felt numb, she sensed neither heat nor cold, meals had lost their taste. The environment seemed strangely altered, too, as if everything had gone dead. Finally, she was convinced that all her relatives had died, that she was alone in the world and had to live in a dead body forever 6.

Granted, Cotard’s syndrome is a rare phenomenon, yet it illustrates by the extreme how the feeling of reality is dependent on our participation in a shared emotional space. Once the affectability of the body and thus the affective basis of co-experiencing the world is lost, the sense of reality dissolves and gives way to a virtualisation of one’s being-in-the-world.


Delusions of guilt

With Cotard’s syndrome, we have already entered the domain of psychotic depression. In the next section, I want to look at a more typical example of depressive de- lusions from an intersubjective point of view, namely at delusions of guilt.

As we have already seen above, the depressed patient’s bodily constriction, vital anxiety and loss of interaffective attunement imply a separation from others and thus are particularly suited to reactivate primary feelings of guiltd. This holds true even more for the “typus melancholicus”, the personality that is particularly prone to fall ill from depression 3 30 31. This personality type is characterised by excessive conscientiousness, orderliness, hypernomic adherence to social norms and dependency on stable interpersonal relationships. For these patients, the affec- tive ties to others are essential, even vital, and becoming guilty means to be excluded from the indispensable com- munity with others. In depression, patients experience the bodily constriction as an existential feeling of sepa- ration and rejection that activates an archaic, punishing and annihilating conscience 32.

The crucial presupposition for depressive delusions, however, concerns the intersubjective constitution of re- ality. Precisely the social reality of guilt normally does not mean a fixed state or quantity but is negotiated through a shared process of attribution and justification that defines the omissions or faults as well as their degree of severity. Similarly, dealing with guilt (through respon- sibility, regret, compensation, forgiveness, rehabilitation, etc.) involves an intersubjective agreement and mutual alignment of perspectives. This in turn requires a deeper fundament that is generated by our prereflective affective connectedness with others, and in particular by a basic sense of mutual trust. The depressive patient, however, loses this prereflective connection and becomes locked in his bodily constriction and corporealisation. Thus, he is literally deprived of the free scope that is necessary for taking the other’s perspective and relativising his own point of view. The others are separated by an abyss and can no longer be reached. Guilt, instead of being an in- tersubjective relation that can be dealt with, becomes a thing or an object the patient is identified with, as shown by the following case example:

Soon after his retirement, a 64 year-old patient fell ill with severe depression. Coming from a poor background, he had become staff executive of a large company by hard work. He reported that he had only been on sick leave for 10 days in 45 years of work. In contrast, his depression was characterised by a feeling of decay. All his power had vanished, the patient complained, he had no longer command of his arms and legs. He had burnt the candle at both ends, had not taken care of his family, and now he deserved to get his punishment. He accused himself of being responsible for the failure of an important deal of his company two years ago that would inevitably lead

to its bankruptcy. He would never be able to cancel this debt again. Moreover, he complained that he had no more feelings for others. “I am only a burden for them, a millstone around my family’s neck … for me, life is over”. He finally thought that the death sweat already appeared on his forehead, one could even see the cadaveric lividity on his face. He should be driven in the mortuary in the basement and be abandoned there (own clinic, T.F.).

The capacity of taking the perspective of others is not only a cognitive feat but depends on a common inter- affective sphere that is part of the “bedrock of unques- tioned certainties” 33 34. It provides a foundational, non- representational structure of mutual understanding that underpins our shared view of reality. In delusional de- pression, however, the loss of the pre-predicative relation to others makes it impossible to take their perspective and to gain distance from oneself, thus forcing the patient to completely equate his self with his current depressed state. This present state means being thrown back upon oneself, feeling rejected and expelled. The delusional pa- tient, as shown in the case example, is identified with his existential feeling of guilt to the extent that he is guilty as such. There is no remorse, recompensation, or forgive- ness, for the guilt is not embedded in a common sphere which would allow for that. Delusions of guilt result from a disruption of intersubjective relations on the basic level of interaffectivity 8.

This is characteristic of depressive delusion in general: corporealisation and loss of attunement to others prevent the patient from taking their perspective. As a result, a state of self beyond the present one becomes unimagi- nable. It has always been like this, and it will stay like this forever – to remember or hope for anything different is deception. The patient is inevitably identified with his present state of bodily constriction and decay, with his state of feeling guilty as such, or, in nihilistic delusion, with his state of feeling dead. Hypochondriacal or nihilis- tic delusions, delusions of guilt or impoverishment are all just different manifestations of a complete objectivation or reification of the self that can no longer be transcend- ed. Depressive delusion is therefore rooted in the loss of the shared interaffective space and in the utter isolation of the self that results from it.


c In general, memories are facilitated by the bodily and emotional state that corresponds to the condition in which they were acquired; cf. the research on state-dependent learning and mood-congruent memories (e.g. Bower 1981, Blaney 1986). This is particularly valid for depression (e.g. Barry et al. 2004).


Temporality  and desynchronisation

As pointed out earlier, there is a narrow connection be- tween the lived body, lived space and temporality. In the last analysis, the possibility of bodily movement, the accessibility and openness of space, and the movement of life towards the future are one and the same thing. So if the body is isolated from the surroundings by constric- tion, then space will appear to be inaccessible, unreach- able and detached from the potentiality of the body. But what is more, the temporal movement of life will also cease and come to a standstill.

Thus, an inhibition of lived time is the hallmark of de- pression, as Straus, von Gebsattel and Tellenbach have pointed out 1-3. Following Straus, in melancholic depres- sion the “ego-time” of the movement of life gets stuck, whereas the “world-time” goes on and passes by. The inhibition of inner time does not allow the patient to progress towards the future, nor is he able to close up and leave behind his past experiences. “The more the inhibition increases and the speed of inner time slows down, the more the determining power of the past is ex- perienced” 1. What has happened remains conscious as a fault or failure, as ever-growing guilt. Such analyses are still fundamental for a psychopathology of temporality. Modifying this approach, however, I will consider the depressive pathology of time not only as an individual inhibition but as a disturbance of a synchronised rela- tion, or a desynchronisation. Depression then means an uncoupling in the temporal relation of organism and en- vironment, as well as with the individual and society 35. The concept of synchronisation is derived from chronobi- ology, referring to the order of rhythms such as the sleep- wake-cycle or the diurnal period of hormone levels. There is a continuous attunement between organismic or endogenous with cosmic or exogenous rhythms, such as daily, lunar and solar periods. On the social level, how- ever, we find many forms of synchronisation as well. Since birth, the rhythms of the organism (eating, sleep- ing, excretion times, etc.) are shaped by socialisation. More subtly, the everyday contact with others implies a continuous fine-tuning of emotional and bodily commu- nication, an intercorporeal resonance. Moreover, social synchronisation is conspicuous in the manifold ways of “timing”, of day- and week-time regulation, date sched- uling, as well as in all mutual commitments and agree- ments which are bound to certain time frames. These various temporal coordinations engender a basic feeling of being in accord with the time of the others, and to live with them in the same, intersubjective time.

All these biological and social synchronisations, how- ever, are not constant. The homoeostasis of the organism in relation to its environment is only preserved through recurring deviations or desynchronisations. On the social level, too, we periodically experience asynchronies, i.e. situations that require us to re-adapt to external changes, to compensate for disturbances and backlogs. Uncom- pleted tasks, unresolved conflicts, strain and distress ac- cumulate, thus inhibiting our progress toward the future.

Even more in serious experiences of trauma, in guilt, loss, or separation, the person temporarily loses the lived syn- chrony with others.

A prolonged desynchronisation between the individual and the environment is characteristic of melancholic de- pression. The typical constellation triggering the illness has already been characterised by Tellenbach as a situa- tion of “remanence” which means falling short of one’s own rigid demands concerning social duties and orderli- ness 3. According to Tellenbach, remanence is the risk inherent in the personality structure of the melancholic type. Patients do not feel equal to the pace of changes or cannot cope with increasing obligations. Often they sur- render in the face of painful processes of detachment or grief, or they refrain from necessary role changes.

This corresponds to the premorbid striving of the melan- cholic type to avoid discrepancies in relation to the en- vironment by all means. The “hypernomia” which Alfred Kraus has characterised as the hallmark of the melan- cholic person’s social identity, is a “hypersynchrony” as well 4. Down to the microdynamics of everyday behav- iour, the melancholic type seeks continuous resonance by social attunement, compliance, friendliness, punctu- ality and timely completion of tasks. The capitulation be- fore an inescapable task of coping or development now leads exactly to what the melancholic fears most of all: the breakdown of coherence with his social environment in depressive illness.

Depressive psychopathology may then be viewed as the result of a general desynchronisation, as a psychophysi- cal slowdown or stasis. On the physiological level, this manifests itself in disturbances of neuroendocrine and temperature periods, of the sleep-wake-rhythm, in a loss of drive, appetite and libido. One may also think of the seasonal depressions as desynchronisations in relation to the annual period. The uncoupling of organism and en- vironment also manifests itself in the experience of cor- porealisation described above. The body loses its embed- ding in, and resonance with, the environment, and turns into an obstacle that falls short of its tasks.

Let us now consider the desynchronisation concerning intersubjective time. Depressed patients avoid the en- vironment with its social or physical timekeepers. They do not get up in time, withdraw from social obligations, and their tasks are taken over by others. Painfully, the patient experiences his inhibition and rigidity in contrast to the movement of life going on in his environment. The desynchronisation also becomes manifest in a failure to achieve forgetting and elimination of the past. “Every- thing goes through my head again and again, and I al- ways have to wonder if I did things right”, as a patient described it. It is the torture of not being able to forget, of being constantly forced to remember and therefore not arriving at the present any more.

With increasing inhibition the basic movement of life comes to a standstill. The depressive has fallen out of common time, usually expressed in the complaint that time has slowed down or stopped. He literally lives in another, sluggish time, and the external, intersubjective time passes him by 8 36. This disturbance of temporalisa- tion can be experimentally verified: depressive persons experience a time dilation, i.e. they estimate given time intervals to be longer than the actual, objectively meas- ured time 37.

“My inner clock seems to stand still, while the clocks of the others run on. In everything I do I am unable to get ahead, as if I am paralysed. I lag behind my duties. I am stealing time” (own clinic, T.F.).

“I have to keep on thinking that time is continuously passing away. As I speak to you now, I think ‘gone, gone, gone’ with every word I say to you. This state is unbear- able and makes me feel driven. (…) Dripping water is unbearable and infuriates me because I have to keep on thinking: another second has gone, now another second. It is the same when I hear the clock ticking – again and again: gone, gone” 2.

This patient perceives time in fragments because she can- not experience it in the flow of spontaneous becoming but as something remaining outside her. She must sub- sequently go back to everything that she was not able to live through in perceiving and acting, however, only to notice that the impression or the movement is already “gone”.

With uncoupling from external time, the future is blocked, which means that the past is fixed once and for all; it may no more be changed or compensated by future living. Now all past guilt and all omissions are actual- ised: “What has happened can never be undone again. Not only the things go by, but also possibilities pass by unused. If one does not accomplish something in time, it is never done any more … The real essence of time is indelible guilt” 38. Thus, in melancholic depression, time is continuously transformed, as it were, into guilt which cannot be discharged any more.

Complete desynchronisation is marked by the transition to melancholic delusion. Now the return to a common intersubjective time has become unimaginable, the de- termination by the past total. A state of self outside the present one seems impossible. The patient is forced to identify with his present state of bodily inhibition and de- cay, with his state of feeling guilty as such, or, in nihilistic delusion, with his state of not feeling alive any more. He is no longer able to keep his situation in perspective, and to relativise his convictions. It has always been like this, and it will stay the same forever – all reminiscence or hope different from that is deception.

Now if for the patient there is no state of self outside the present one, he loses the capacity to change his perspec-

tive and to transcend his present experience towards an intersubjective view. Depressive delusion is therefore rooted in the total constriction of self-experience: Cor- porealisation and desynchronisation, i.e. bodily and temporal separation from the shared world, prevent the patient from taking the perspective of others. He loses the freedom of self-distancing, of considering other possibili- ties of self-being. Delusions of guilt or impoverishment, nihilistic and hypochondriacal delusions are all just dif- ferent expressions of the same state of the self: a state of total objectivation or “reification” that can no longer be transcended.


d This is in line with recent research on the embodiment of emotions, showing that bodily postures, expressions, sensations and interoceptive states influence one’s emotional state in various ways, “bottom-up“, so to speak (Damasio 1999, Niedenthal 2007, Craig 2008).


Resynchronising therapy

I have described depression by two main alterations that are closely interconnected: corporealisation and desyn- chronisation. The loss of goal-oriented capacities of the body, of drive, appetite and desire, are equivalent to a slowing-down and finally a standstill of lived time. Thus the past, the guilt, losses and failures gain dominance over the future and its possibilities. Melancholic delusion is the utter manifestation of this uncoupling from com- mon time.

From this point of view, the treatment of depression should have the aim to restore and support the miss- ing processes of synchronisation. Apart from biological approaches, a psychosocial “resynchronising therapy” should take into account the following guidelines:

1) The first requirement would be a spatial and tempo- ral frame that creates a legitimate recovery period for the patient, a “time-out” so-to-speak, during which he can gradually readapt to the common social course of time with as little pressure as possible. In this phase of treat- ment, the aim is to loosen the rigidity of bodily restriction and anxiety, which is mainly achieved by psychotropic medication, but also by the relief of everyday tasks that overburden the patient’s capacities.

  • Secondly, it is important to give rhythm to everyday life, i.e. to emphasise repetition and regularity in the structure of the day and This helps the patient to gain a stand against fleeting time and to support the re- synchronisation of internal and external rhythms.
  • Careful activation therapy may support the patient’s orientation toward future goals, however modest. This may be stressful at first, since the patient’s own, appeti- tive motivation is still missing and each action is in im- mediate danger of not satisfying his high demands on achievement. It is therefore important to explain to the patient that the intentional arc alone, which he draws in planning and execution, is enough to extend his senso- rimotor space again und to re-establish his directedness towards the
  • From this follows the principle of “optimal resynchronisation”: the patient should experience a degree of ac- tivation and stimulation appropriate to his present state, so that the empty time is filled again, without however, causing a relapse into uncoupled time by forced rehabili- tation. The image of a gear-change suggests itself here, where different levels of synchronisation are chosen ac- cording to the present capacity.
  • After the remission of acute depression, it becomes important to further the psychological and social process- es of resynchronisation whose failure has contributed to the onset of illness, above all, processes of grief and role change.


The phenomenology of mania: body, space, time and intersubjectivity

Mania is obviously the antithesis of depression. The depressive heaviness, inhibition and retardation is re- placed by lightness, disinhibition and acceleration. The lived body, instead of its constriction in depression, is characterised by a centrifugal expansion, connected  with a general sense of omnipotence and appropriation. Therefore, the manic mood is not so much a state of happiness and cheerfulness, but rather a state of super- ficial elation, often experienced with feelings of flying or floating. One may speak of a “vital euphoria”, since the manic state of mood is not due to a narcissistic gran- diosity, but mainly to an excess of drive, energy and disinhibition. The body seems to have lost all inner re- sistance that normally hinders us from acting out every impulse immediately.

However, manic euphoria may turn into dysphoria and irritability, especially when others question the manic person’s omnipotent attitude or confront his expansion. Dysphoria (from the Greek dysphoros = hard to bear) denotes a condition of disagreeable, nervous tension, hostile emotional reactivity and propensity for aggressive acting out. It becomes the dominant mood in so-called mixed states of bipolar disorders, characterised by rap- idly shifting affects, agitation, accelerated thoughts, lack of concentration and memory, and sudden attacks of de- pression which may even cause suicidal thoughts and actions 39 40. Dysphoric mood should thus be considered as a particular type of mood that is qualitatively distinct from anger, sadness, anxiety, or euphoria.

As a result of the excess of drive and the expansivity of the body, the space of the manic person changes into an un- limited, homogeneous medium of projects and activities. The patient’s self is exteriorised and extended in his en- vironment, trespassing on others’ territories regardless of barriers of decency or respect. “The world is too small for this being in expansion […] and distances become small- er” 41. Space is lived as if it were vast, open and lacking resistance. Attractive qualities or opportunities abound,

all objects seem equally close, available and ready-to- hand 42, leading to the notorious excessive consumption. Thus, the relation of person and space is characterised by centrifugal dispersion and dedifferentiation, overriding the gradations of proximity and distance that normally structure the peripersonal environment. In the symbolic realm of thinking, the “flight of ideas” corresponds to the dispersed mode of existence that is conspicuous in the patient’s lived space.

Regarding temporality, we find the opposite type of de- synchronisation compared to depression, namely an ac- celeration and finally uncoupling of the individual from the world time. Manic action is characterised by restless hustle and agitation. The present is not enough, it is vir- tually marked by what is still missing or what would be possible. Whereas the depressive patient keeps lament- ing over missed opportunities of the past, the manic per- son is constantly ahead of himself, addicted to the seem- ingly unlimited scope of possibilites. Interest in the pre- sent is always distracted in favour of the next-to-come. The future cannot be awaited and expected, but must be assailed and seized immediately. Impatience leaves no ease for pursuing long-term goals. The past, on the other hand, is forgotten as soon as new alluring options and possibilities emerge; commitments are betrayed in favour of a more enticing future.

All this leads to a momentary life, consisting of isolated “nows”, not allowing for a sustained development and conclusion of projects. The manic mode of existence is volatile, playful and provisional; both the past and the future lose their influence on the present 43. If one project fails, then a dozen of other plans take its place at once, resulting in a spinning round on the spot without actual efficacy. In so doing, the manic person neglects the natu- ral rhythms that oppose his acceleration: he represses the cyclic time of the body in favour of homogeneous, linear- ly accelerated time. He disregards the needs of his body, denies it the necessary sleep and ignores the signs of be- ginning exhaustion. The body is exploited recklessly, as a mere vehicle of the expansive drives.

In summary, in mania the movement of life is accelerated and overtakes external, social, or world time. Only in fleet- ing transition does the patient come in contact with the world and the others, unable to dwell in the present and instead always turning to the next-to-come. Here too, the disturbance of temporality may be experimentally verified: in studies on time estimation, hypomanic and manic pa- tients experience a shortening of time periods 44.

If we finally turn to intersubjectivity, we find patients bus- tling around in dispersed attention, without being able to take a specific interest in others. Though the manic per- son constantly approaches and seizes them, he soon loses his interest once they do not participate, and no deeper affective connection results. The patient’s euphoria feigns affection, but actually remains a “frozen”, fixed state of empty cheerfulness. Since the component of receptivity in contact is lacking, encounters cannot establish content- ment and fulfillment. Lack of distance and disinhibition, often a sexualised behaviour to the point of promiscuity, may have a destructive effect on personal relationships. Frequently the manic episode leaves behind a mess of job loss, debts, or divorce. Manic patients thus live over their means and exhaust their biological and social res- sources to the point of depletion and breakdown. Even though they may not realize this immediately for lack of self-criticism, the disillusionment after the manic episode is all the more profound and may often contribute to a sudden fall from mania into depression.



From a phenomenological point of view, depression and mania are not just “inner”, psychological, or mental dis- orders, but disturbances of the bodily, affective and inter- subjective space in which the patients live, behave and act. In depression, the corporealised, constricted body loses its affectability and emotional resonance; this un- dermines the patient’s existential feelings of being-with- others, resulting in a general sense of detachment, separa- tion, or even expulsion. The typical cognitive symptoms of depression – negative thoughts about self and future, delusional ideation – are a result of this basic bodily and affective alteration.

The constriction and encapsulation of the lived body also corresponds to the typical triggering situations of depres- sion. These are mostly experiences of a disruption of rela- tions and bonds: a loss of relevant others or of important social roles, experiences of backlog or defeat, resulting in a desynchronisation from others and in a blocked move- ment of life. To these situations of threatening or actual separation, the depressive patient reacts as a psychophys- iological unity. Without doubt, depression is a bodily ill- ness even in the biological sense, implying functional disturbances on different levels and a partial decoupling of organism and environment. But at the same time, the biological dysfunctions that result in the felt bodily con- striction are the meaningful expression of a disorder of intercorporality and interaffectivity on the psychosocial level. Our participation in interaffective space is medi- ated by a fundamental bodily resonance. In depression, this attunement fails, and the lived body, as it were, shrinks to the boundaries of the material body.

In mania, the depressive heaviness, inhibition and re- tardation find their counterparts in lightness, disinhibi- tion and acceleration. The centrifugal expansion of lived body and lived space is connected with a compression of experienced time and a dispersion of activities rendering the patient incapable of pursuing his goals in a sustain-

able and productive way. Moreover, the overstimulated and expansive body is inadequate for establishing the fine-tuned and reciprocal interactions with others that are necessary for emotional resonance and interaffectiv- ity. Though the manic person’s behaviour may convey a different impression, his rapport with others is no less disturbed than in depression; his contacts remain fleeting and superficial. In summary, both disorders are only fully described as disorders of intersubjectivity, which means, as a failure to participate in the interaffective space that is mediated by bodily resonance.


Conflict of interest




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