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Sigmund Freud and Depression


Sigmund Freud has exerted a powerful influence on the modern treatment of mental health. An original thinker and analyser of human behaviour, his legacy is deeply embedded both in the clinical practice and management of mental health. His legacy is present in everyday life with ‘Freudian slips’ and searching for deeper meaning in dreams.

Freud mapped a new way of understanding how the mind operates by providing a structural model of the human personality. In his model the mind is not something that gets switched on and off. Rather there are three systems regulating its continuous operation.

These three systems: the ego, superego and id are always in flux. Fundamentally how we all act is a reflection of these three systems fighting for supremacy:

Id: The Id is full of impulsive, primal drives, like pleasure, sex and death. It wants immediate gratification. Not surprisingly this is the first system to be developed and is easily observable in babies.

Superego: The superego is the moral governor. It says “I should do this and that”. It strives for perfection and regulates moral codes. The voice is empowered from both parents, authority figures and society pressures to who restrain aberrant and regulate normal behaviour.

The ego: The ego acts as a mediator between the realities of the world and the ID. It executes plans and coordinated activities. 


We are looking at three key areas:

1.     Exaggerated feelings of guilt
2.     Buried and hurt feelings of anger and rage from childhood trauma
3.     Conflict between the superego and the ID


Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to recognise the powerful role of guilt in people who have depression. He likened depression, or melancholia as it was called during his lifetime, as a more powerful form of grieving. Depression is distinguishable from grief by an exaggerated feeling of guilt and self-blame. Depression and grief both involve sadness, loss of appetite, disturbed sleep and withdrawal from social life.

In Freud’s perspective this guilt is in part driven by a sense of loss in childhood, particularly in the case of absent, distant or divorced parents. In addition to repressing these painful experiences the person feels guilty for somehow causing this separation and attributes some inherent flaw in themselves. This is understandable as a child cannot rationalize situations like an adult.

This strong sense of  guilt includes constantly feeling like a burden, feeling constantly self conscious and inferior to others . This guilt is often driven by unconscious feelings buried in childhood.

The good news is that these unconscious feelings can be released and made conscious. This is the purpose of psychotherapy. The person is able to experience catharsis and release these latent and operative feelings of guilt and pain that lie in the unconscious and stop their influence on behaviour. This is great news and true liberation for people under an unconscious spell.

Takeaway point: Making the unconscious conscious is crucial to recovery as in many cases the hurt, pain, anger and sadness is stored in the unconscious.


The simplistic definition of depression as ‘anger turned inward’ is also based in Freud’s theories. The anger arises from childhood traumatic experiences and remains buried in the unconscious via repressive defence mechanisms. As we have discussed in our article on anger, depressed people harbour significant anger in the unconscious which in time can result in rage and crippling depression. The ego gets overwhelmed by this unconscious burden.

This anger is not the same as conscious anger. What is this anger about: perceived rejection and abandonment by others. The result of this often involves devaluing others and harboring revenge fantasies. This impulse understood within a Freudian framework is not ‘evil’ but an expression of a defence mechanism as a way to minimize further hurt. Unconscious anger leaks out in the form of passive anger at others and masochistic anger against the self via a hypercritical punishing superego voice.

Takeaway point: Anger plays a critical role in depression both in driving rage against the self and others and. The good news is that buried anger can be let out and released when the unconscious is made conscious. 


While Freud in his lifetime concentrated as depression as a form of grief, his understanding of intra-psychic tension is helpful when it comes to understanding and beating depression. Where a healthy ego is nor present to balance the moral demands of the superego and the gratifying impulses of the ID a person’s thought life is turned into maelstrom and healthy functioning becomes impeded.

One of the radical ways he did this was to postulate causes for abnormal behavior to be understood in terms of causation in the unconscious. Unconscious forces are guiding behaviour and creating a divided mind.

There are certain personality types that are more prone to psychic conflict: 

  • Overly conscientious
  • People-pleasers
  • Obsessive and competitive types
  • Prone to excessive worry
  • Unable to let go, relax and have fun as always thinking
  • Over-intellectual.
  • Prone to muscle tension and tension issues in the body: TMJ, migraines, gastrointestinal disturbances

Essentially what occurs is that the ego is unable to maintain balance between superego’s and ID’s demands and subsequently is unable to cope. That is when symptoms start occurring. At first they can be manageable but as time goes on problematic symptoms like sleep interruption, attentive disturbance, intrusive thoughts, excessive worrying and suicidal ideation can very much disturb peoples lives.

At How I Beat Depression we also maintain that a range of chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, tension headaches, a range of gastrointestinal disturbances are a function of this divided mind and anger and hurt in the unconscious.

Takeaway point: A depressed person has a divided mind, however these three parts can be harmonized and healed  when the unconscious hurts are made conscious, resulting in transformational healing and wholeness.

We hope this information has helped you understand how Freud’s concepts can help beat depression. Please watch our YouTube video and remember that for many people making the unconscious conscious is best done in the context of a therapeutic relationship.

Or, if you would like to submit a story which can change and influence other lives please send it via e-mail to info@brightlightmhs.org.uk.