4 Tips for Finding Vitality After It Has Gone

“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 uninspired.

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 depression.

The Essence of Depression

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 actually maladaptive.

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 emotions.

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 Essential Depression

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 depression:

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 time. Preconscious 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.

Srini 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 a LinkedIn educator.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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