When you feel depressed, you most likely experience this pervasive feeling of overwhelming gloom. As the depression takes over it can feel like it becomes you, that you are depression and depression is you. When this happens, it can be very difficult to function normally. So, what has happened to bring about this change and equally importantly, what can be done about it?
Well, here is the thing, you weren’t born depressed, none of us were. Nor has a depression gene ever been found by scientists that may support the belief that depression is inherited. So, perhaps we can consider that depression has been ‘acquired’ at some point along our journey through life. Something, be it an event or circumstance, has triggered it and our thinking and therefore our mood, has been altered as a result. It follows then that, if you’ve have acquired something, then it is also entirely possible to let it go at some point too or at least manage it differently.
“If we continue to practice depression then eventually, we will become good at it.”
The modern psychological and biological view is that depression can be both a mental and physiological disorder. It is known that low levels of neurotransmitters may lead to a depressive state and there is evidence that the gut brain axis may play a part too. Low levels of serotonin can be increased through the use of SSRI medication. The quantities of chemicals in our brains are constantly changing and an emotional arousal for example, be it happiness, sadness, anger etc. will have an affect on the chemical balance. The act of smiling can produce serotonin and the emotion of anger can influence norepinephrine levels in the brain.
Depression can have many different environmental triggers which do not necessarily always affect people in the same way. For some people an event which causes upset or harm and may lead to depression, can for others be dismissed or barely noticed. It’s how we think about the event that can often determine whether we become depressed or not. Events can be from the past, present or future and they can be real or imagined.
When the shroud of depression descends it can last for a few hours, weeks, months and even years. But does it really persist for every second during this period? The answer is, it doesn’t. Often because we are so tightly in the grip of a depression, we are unable to remember any good or positive experiences at all – but they do happen even when we are depressed. We often hear people exclaim “I have been depressed for many years”. The reality is that during this time, there will have been many exceptions or incidents when depression was not existent.
Our brains contain billions of neural circuits which whenever we repeat something, we strengthen those pathways responsible for that action. Eventually this pathway becomes well-trodden and accordingly a habit or a skill is formed. Repetition is how we learnt to ride a bicycle or play an instrument and it is the same with depression. As we continue to think in a depressed way, those neural circuits that are in play are strengthened until this also becomes a habit, our default way. Habits are things that we can perform without consciously thinking about them, they become ingrained and just exist. If we continue to practice depression then eventually, we will become good at it.
The cycle of depression
An event happens in a person’s life which has an impact on satisfying our basic human needs, emotional or physical. Our basic needs have been termed our “Human Givens” (Tyrrell, Griffin) i.e., the needs we inherited. Physical needs are those such as a healthy diet, exercise, clean water etc. Whereas emotional needs include the need to receive attention, to connect with others, to feel competent, to be loved and to love etc.
Once the event has occurred the person begins to worry about their difficulties and as a consequence of this, to use their imagination (introspect) to generate emotionally arousing thoughts. These thoughts are usually around feeling stuck, hopeless or loss of control, worry etc. This then sets off a chain reaction whereby the same thoughts are constantly churned over and over in the mind strengthening the thought patterns. These patterns are usually unhelpful.
As this arousal increases and becomes more extreme, the thinking pattern begins to simplify until it is reduced to black and white terms or all or nothing thinking. When it becomes too extreme, we begin to catastrophize. The arousal also has the effect of switching on our fight or flight response which uses anxiety, anger, depression or a combination of those emotions as solutions to threats, perceived or real. This response comes from our primitive brain and whilst it is needed when we genuinely face a threatening situation, the constant activation when a threat doesn’t exist, has the cumulative effect of spending more time either being either angry, anxious or depressed.
The situation is further compounded by disrupting our sleep process. Research psychologist Joe Griffin spent 12 years analysing dreams and came to the astounding conclusion that the REM process’s primary function is to extinguish unresolved emotional arousal’s that we encounter during the day. There isn’t enough space here to give a fuller explanation of Joe’s theory but the key takeaway is that REM sleep has a specific purpose (which is not to amuse us whilst we sleep). It is a process that reduces stress in our mind and body so that the following day we can begin with a clean slate and spend more time in our intellectual brain rather than our primitive emotional brain with it’s limited operating model.
REM sleep is limited to about 20% of overall sleep. Research has shown that depressed people spend more time in REM that non-depressed people do. The REM process uses a ton of energy, so for someone who is depressed and spending a lot of time in the REM state, they are likely to wake up feeling tired and lacking motivation (which in itself can provide more reason to worry). This creates another negative cycle whereby the depressed person is likely to want to return to bed in an attempt to combat the tiredness and so enter the REM state again burning up tons of energy in the process and so the cycle repeats.
In the absence of a diagnosed organic condition, the cycle of depression can be broken through change. When we are depressed, our motivation is low and change can be a difficult step to take. It’s all too easy to procrastinate or wait till we feel a little better or have more energy. In fact our primitive mind will encourage us to repeat the same patterns we used before as this ensured our survival so in the case of depression, we are encouraged to continue being depressed. But change doesn’t necessarily have to begin with a big step. In fact small positive steps are preferred as these are more manageable and we get a lovely flow of serotonin when we achieve targets or accomplish goals which in turn helps to increase our motivation.
In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy we help clients find the steps they need to take towards their preferred future, rather than focusing on the problem and how to get away from it. The preferred future is not necessarily a perfect one but it is a future where the presenting problems are not present. It does require the client to be motivated and to actively participate in the therapy process and with these two requirements in place, enormous success can be achieved allowing you to welcome positive change into your life.