A weight on my chest.
I just can’t do it any more.
A crushing complete emptiness inside.
A void of darkness.
No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I hope I feel depressed today.”
Depression is a difficult life experience. Depression is downright depressing.
Depression can range from the blues to a full-blown depressive episode.
About 5 to 10 percent of the population experience major depression at any given time. One in six will develop a major depression at some point in their lifetime. (Melvyn Lurie)
Stress plays a role in almost all types of depression. Even mildly stressful events such as failing an exam, not getting a job interview, or a having it rain all through your much-needed vacation brings some depression. This situational depression usually clears up in time. Other depression can become chronic and overwhelming, sucking the energy and joy out of life.
Family genetics or upbringing can make a person more vulnerable to depression. This vulnerability is then triggered by a stressful life event, a medical problem, or substance abuse. Often, the direct cause of depression is not known. However, we do know it originates in the brain.
The Brain and Depression
Understanding depression and anxiety requires a very basic understanding of the brain because the symptoms come from a problem in the way the brain produces certain chemicals. These chemicals help transmit messages from nerve cell to nerve cell (Wendy Moragne).
The thinking part of our brain is called the neocortex. In the thinking part of the brain, you establish thinking patterns that the body responds to regardless of their validity.
For example, if you think you are worthless and unlovable, the body responds as if these thoughts are true. When this type of negative thinking pattern repeats itself over and over, it leads to feelings of depression.
Inside the brain is a second brain that is built quite differently than the thinking part of the brain. The limbic or emotional brain controls everything that governs your emotions, including your sense of well-being.
When the inner sense of well-being is compromised you are left with feelings of despair, loneliness, inadequacy, or apathy. These are the feelings associated with depression.
Depression often stems from past painful experiences that have no relation to the present; yet the worldview from those past experiences continues to rattle around in the emotional brain, thus continuing to affect your mood and well-being.
This is why you can’t just talk yourself out of depression. You can’t just buck up, move on, or pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Returning to a place of harmony between the thinking and the emotional brains helps you manage your depression. (David Servan-Schreiber)
Harmony Between the Thinking and the Emotional Brains Comes From a Combination of Mindfulness Training and Cognitive Therapy.
We want to reprogram the emotional brain so that it adapts to the present instead of continuing to react to past experiences as if they are the present.
John is a an example of this dynamic. John was a high school science teacher and father of two young children. He loved tennis and biking. John came to therapy because his wife said there were two John’s–the one who was a great husband, provider, and father, and then there was the depressed John. She was done with the “other John.”
When depressed, John was emotionally shut down to all emotions except anger. He was condemning and perfectionistic in his expectations of his wife, his children, and his students. In this frame of mind, John despised himself.
He was not good enough. As an extension, it didn’t really matter what his wife, kids, or students did. It wasn’t good enough either (see Anxiety: “Perfectionism”).
When depressed, he would act out his anger with a sneer of disgust that was so belittling and demeaning that others would walk a wide path to not trigger his anger. It was obvious why his wife was so frustrated.
A little background helps us understand what is going on in John’s emotional brain. John was the son of an alcoholic father and a depressed, co-dependent mother. John was blamed for the problems in the family–including his father’s drinking. If he were just a better kid and didn’t demand so much, Dad wouldn’t need to drink and they could be a happy family.
As a very successful high school coach, John’s dad enjoyed near-celebrity status in his small community. So the family pretended everything was fine and never openly discussed the dysfunction in his family. John spent most of his childhood trying to gain the love and respect of his parents. He wasn’t athletic (this was a big problem for his dad) so he compensated for the rejection and blame by over-excelling in academics. He thought that if he were smart in school, maybe he could win love from the adults around him.
As an adult, John experienced chronic depression and anxiety. The irritability of depression came whenever he felt vulnerable or any other negative emotion.
When feeling vulnerable, his emotional brain stirred up the feelings from childhood, and John felt that he wasn’t lovable. It was as if the past experience of parental rejection and guilt was ever-present. This left him feeling helpless and confused.
He did not link the depression to his childhood experiences (see Depression: “Childhood Scripts Carry forward into Adulthood”). He kept trying to buck up and get over it.
He did learn some anger management skills that helped him to step back in a situation rather than to merely react. But the depression persisted. The first step for John was to reprogram the emotional brain.
Working With the Emotional Part of the Brain (Mindfulness Training)
Interventions that directly influence the emotional brain have a greater impact than interventions that depend entirely on language and reason. The emotional brain isn’t logical, it is of course emotional.
You can start to reprogram your emotional brain using some simple mindfulness techniques (see Happiness: “Mindfulness”).
1. Come back to present moment through breathing meditation. You can re-ground yourself by simply breathing. You are always breathing in the the very moment you are in. You never breath in the past, you never breath in the future, so the breath is the simplest pathway back to the present moment.
To learn this skill, practice the free breathing meditation available on Empowered Life Solutions home page.
2. Suspend judgement. One of the most basic mindfulness skills is to hold out on offering judgement on yourself, others, or a situation.
Set any pain aside for just a few moments. This gives the emotional brain some time to chill out and not react as if you, others, or the situation is catastrophic.
My father-in-law had a wait-and-see philosophy that he learned as a coping skill while serving in WWII. As a newlywed just entering the family, I watched in amazement as others in the family were angry, worried, or in crisis over a situation while my father-in-law was perfectly calm. He decided to wait and see.
He had learned the mindfulness technique of suspending judgement. Hold the pain away for a moment to let the emotional brain calm down. One client calls suspending judgement “setting it in a basket to the side for now.” You hold the pain away from yourself and give yourself space before assigning meaning to your experience.
3. Calm the emotional brain through safe-place guided imagery or thinking of a pleasant memory.
To earn some extra money as a freshman in college, I signed up to be a participant in a research study about the correlation between your heart rate and your emotional state-of-being. The participants of the study were shown some very distressing photos (holocaust victims, children who had been abused, and starving children are some that I remember).
We were then lead on a guided imagery of coming to a place that felt peaceful and safe. Our heart rates were monitored during the experiment. Following the experiment, I collected my money and went home. I never learned the results for the study at large, but I know for me personally I could feel the pain of the pictures through my whole body.
As an 18-year-old, I was surprised at how the pictures could evoke despair, anger, and pain, and even more surprised at how calm came so easily with the use of guided imagery. What I didn’t know then is that our body responds to thoughts and images in the brain. Thus, we can use this understanding to calm the emotional brain through repeated practice of guided imagery or bringing to mind a pleasant memory. (see “Safe Place Guided Imagery” in Premium Content).
Working With the Thinking Part of the Brain (Cognitive Therapy)
Now, we want to work with the thinking part of your brain. Through the vast amount of research in the field of cognitive therapy, we know that thoughts influence mood. Constant negative thoughts are depressing. These are known as automatic thoughts because they happen without conscious effort.
In response to a job interview you think, “I won’t get that job anyway. Nothing ever works out for me.”
You receive a compliment and you think, “She doesn’t really know me or she wouldn’t say that.” By so doing you are turning a positive to a negative (see Depression: “Turning Away From Happiness”).
You didn’t help your child with their homework and you think, “I am the world’s worst mother. No one deserves to be saddled with me.” You’re right that you are not the perfect mom, but this is greatly distorted in the negative direction.
At times, the automatic thoughts can have elements of truth, but that truth gets distorted. Such exaggerated negative thinking fuels depression.
The link between your depression/anxiety and your thoughts is covered in detail in other articles and Premium Content Workbook exercises (see Anxiety: “Anxious Thinking,” Anxiety: “You and Your Thoughts are Separate,” Anxiety: “Anxiety Pathways in your Brain,” Anxiety: “How to Work with the Anxiety in My Mind,” and Anxiety: “Anxiety Thinking Patterns”).
Understanding this link is vital to any long-term healing for depression. It is important to understand that your thoughts can fuel depression.
Let’s go back to our story of John, the science teacher who felt unlovable and became defensive when feeling vulnerable. In his worldview, he was unlovable–at his core he was despicable. These thoughts made depression the inevitable outcome. John learned the link between his thoughts and his depression by the three following steps:
1. Become the observing self. It is important for you to learn to notice your thoughts and understand that your body believes your thoughts without challenging them.
You need to learn to notice your thoughts. This is called becoming the observing self.
When John’s wife would discuss parenting concerns she had, John would take it personally–his worldview was that she was saying he wasn’t a good father. He observed that thought. He could then go to the next step of suspending judgment as he looked for other explanations.
Before he learned this skill, the thought would have come and remained unchallenged. His body would accept it as completely true. He would get defensive and angry, and yell at his wife for always accusing him. Holding the thought in his conscious awareness gave John the time and space he needed for the next two steps.
2. Look at other possible explanations for the situation or problem. Once you have observed your thought, you can learn to suspend judgement before you decide on an action. You don’t have to take your thoughts at face value.
Step back from the thought you have observed and see if there is another possible explanation. Look for another angle or point-of-view.
John learned to recognize the cognitive distortions of personalization and all-or-nothing thinking. He could then step back and re-examine the situation. He could see that his wife was trying to figure out how to parent successfully just like he was (see Anxiety: “Cognitive Distortions,” and Depression: “Depressive Thought Patterns”).
3. Make an active choice about which thoughts to accept. Using “Floating Leaf Guided Imagery” from Empowered Life Solutions Premium Content, John learned to let the negatively distorted thought of “I am never a good father” float past while he embraced the notion that he and his wife could problem-solve together. He learned he had a choice about which thoughts he accepted and which ones could be dismissed as “just a thought.”
When the emotional and thinking brains are getting along, you know that a feeling of well-being is not far behind.
Everyone gets the blues because life comes with some pain and difficult experiences. Depression, though, is devastating. Consistently applying the combination of mindfulness (to calm the emotional brain) and cognitive therapy skills (to work with the thinking brain) will bring some relief and reduce the intensity of your depressive experiences.