8 steps to understanding depression and finding where the problem lies
Do you ever wonder why you feel down, depressed, basically unhappy? We can all be a mystery to ourselves: why do I act like this, why do I feel like this?
When we don't understand something, it can feel frightening, infinitely complicated, and overwhelming. In this article, I'm going to describe why people get depressed, explain why you may feel down at the moment, and give you some pointers to help you help yourself.
Firstly, forget the idea of depression as a 'biological disease'. There is little to no evidence that the vast majority of depression people suffer is caused by genetics or biological imbalance (although as we'll see, depression does cause changes in the body). Knowing both how depression works and why you may be feeling a bit depressed at the moment can help you begin to combat it more effectively.
The first question I want you to ask yourself is: What is my life lacking at the moment, causing me to feel depressed?
Step 1: Are you aware of your needs?
We become depressed when we worry and ruminate about what emotional and physical needs remain unfulfilled in our lives. We all have basic emotional needs for:
- Having a sense of security in life - safe territory and an environment that allows us to develop fully.
- Attention (to give and receive it) - a form of nutrition.
- A sense of autonomy and control - having freedom to make responsible choices.
- Emotional intimacy - to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, 'warts and all'.
- Feeling part of a wider community.
- Privacy - opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience to avoid 'overwhelm'.
- A sense of status within social groupings; clear roles in life.
- A sense of competence and achievement.
- Meaning and purpose - which come from being stretched in what we do and think.
Now, look at this list and consider what need may not be that well met in your life as you are living it at the moment. Don't use this as an excuse to feel down about what might be lacking in your life, but rather as an opportunity. So many people live their lives not knowing what they might need, just blindly using alcohol or drugs to try to 'fill the gap' of an unfulfilled genuine need. Think about how you can begin to take steps to increase the likelihood that any unfulfilled needs will be met in future.
It's difficult not to start feeling depressed if you are too socially isolated, are too under-challenged (or too challenged) by life, or feel you have too little influence over your life. But the great thing is that when you start consciously meeting one need, then the other needs will often start to get met as a 'ripple effect' by-product.
Step 2: Is your past depressing you?
Depressed people often exhibit 'learned helplessness'. This happens when they learn they are helpless or relatively powerless in one situation in the past, then make a faulty link to a new situation (or even spread this sense of helplessness to all situations) and continue to act as if they are helpless, even though things have changed and they no longer are. An analogy is a bird locked in a cage for years whose cage door is left open one day, but because of its past conditioning doesn't fly free, even though it could.
People also do this. Perhaps past traumatic experience taught them that 'all men are sadistic' or 'all women are manipulative' or 'everything always goes wrong in the end!' These over-generalizations are damaging, so challenge them.
If you have been traumatized by past events and you suspect the intense learning from these events has caused you to experience learned helplessness and emotionally over-generalize, then I suggest you get psychological help from someone trained in the rewind technique, which will help lift the traumatic feelings from memories. But even realizing that viewing the world through the 'lens' of your past experience is causing you to respond inappropriately to the present is going to help you greatly. (See: 'Let Go of the Past'.)
Step 3: Do you understand the 'cycle of depression'?
People always dream more when they are depressed, compared to when they are happier (1). It seems we are only really meant to spend about a third of our sleep time in the REM dream state, but we can spend up to 75% of sleep in the less restful state of REM when we're depressed (less restful as compared to the deeper 'slow wave sleep' that replenishes and restores energy). No wonder depressed people report having 'restless sleep', waking up feeling exhausted, and that sleeping more just makes them even more tired.
It seems that the more we worry, the more we dream, as our dreaming brain tries to complete the pattern of arousal by 'dreaming it out'. But if the dreaming mechanism in your brain is working overtime to deal with all the unfulfilled arousals brought about by too much worry, then the result is exhaustion and the 'flat battery' of depression.
Have you been worrying a lot recently without:
- 'Switching off' the worry by endeavouring to reassure yourself?
- 'Switching off' the arousal from the worry by actively and practically problem solving?
Worrying (and any negative introspective thought) causes over-dreaming, which eventually causes loss of motivation, energy, and hope. Ask yourself, "What am I most worried about at the moment? And how can I go about feeling better about it or actively problem solving it?"
Step 4: Is a situation depressing you?
The word 'worry' comes from the Old English word originally meaning to 'strangle' - and certainly worrying can feel pretty suffocating. We often worry about situations that seem impossible to solve. We worry about other people when only they can help themselves, we worry about an unchangeable past, or about other situations that we can't seem to change. To decrease worry (and therefore decrease exhausting time spent in REM sleep), we need to either deal with the situation or stop worrying about it so much.
One young man felt 'damned if he did, damned if he didn't' because he felt his parents mocked him for not finding work, but told him he'd never be able to do the work when he did find a job. This is otherwise known as a 'double bind'. The only way to stop this from causing him too much stress was to gradually help him feel less concerned with what his parents thought. They sensed he was changing and caring less about their criticisms and they too started to change for the better.
Is there a situation in your life that prevents you meeting one of your basic emotional needs, yet doesn't seem to have a 'way out of it'? There is always some room for movement.
One woman cared for her sick husband and felt guilty if she spent even an afternoon away from him, but was exhausted due to never having a break from her caring duties. She had put herself in a double bind! I suggested that she would be better able to care for her husband if she took regular breaks and let another family member step into the caring role once in a while. By connecting 'better caring' to being a consequence of regular breaks, we were able to undo the tightly knotted self-created double bind.
Is there a double bind in your life?
Step 5: Is somebody depressing you?
Moods, attitudes, and emotions spread from person to person (2), and low morale can spread like wildfire. Is there a person or are there people that you suspect transmit negativity, pessimism, defeatism, and other classic depressive thinking styles your way? If possible, limit your exposure to such people and make a point of sometimes mixing with more emotionally resilient, hopeful, and - dare I say - fun people.
I once discussed this with a woman who had started feeling depressed and she suddenly realized she always felt a lot worse after speaking to a friend on the phone. She decided to limit phone calls with the person to once a week and also to take active steps after the call to improve her own mood.
Step 6: Is your physical lifestyle depressing you?
You have physical needs as well as emotional ones (and of course the two influence each other). Too little sleep and exercise will increase stress in your body and therefore your mind, leading to exhaustion and a greater likelihood of depressive thinking styles. Too many carbohydrates and 'neat' sugars will send your moods on a roller coaster of dips, brief highs, and shattering lows. (See: 'In Praise of the Primal Lifestyle'.)
Make a point of 'emptying out stress' by regularly doing stuff that relaxes you. Sort your physical needs out as part (possibly a very big part) of the process of lifting depression.
Step 7: Are your meds making you depressed?
If you have felt more depressed since being on medication, ask your doctor about the side effects of your meds. Sometimes symptoms of depression can lift dramatically with a revised dosage or a move to another medication. Some (so-called) antidepressants even have depression-symptom side effects (3) and certainly withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can cause depressive symptoms - which is often why people are then put back on the meds.
Step 8: Are your learned thinking styles causing and maintaining depression?
As Shakespeare wrote: "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."
The famous father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman (4), found that depressed people tend to think in predictable ways. Firstly, they tend to think in absolute, all-or-nothing, black-or-white styles. This might manifest as perfectionism ("If it's not absolutely perfect, then it's a complete failure!") or 'catastrophization' ("The outcome will be a complete disaster!").
A depressed person is less likely to see life's shades of relative grey and will think in terms of complete failure vs. complete success or complete happiness vs. complete misery and so forth. This all-or-nothing thinking corresponds to the elevated stress levels that a depressed person experiences and in turn worsens the stress. After all, the 'fight or flight' stress response is pretty all-or-nothing; and the closer we are to it, the more our thinking tends to manifest as all-or-nothing, too.
In what other ways do depressed people tend to think?
Seligman termed how people explain reality to themselves as their 'explanatory styles'. More resilient, less depression-prone people tend to see setbacks as:
- Specific (a one-off bad thing) and therefore not 'infecting' the rest of their lives.
- Time-limited, rather than permanent.
- Arising from outside of the self (at least in part).
More depression-prone folk have learned to see setbacks as:
- Global - that is, affecting everything: "My relationship ended - my whole life is ruined! Nothing in my life works out!"
- Permanent: "I'll never meet anyone again! I always screw everything up." The badness is seen in terms of 'always' and the good things in terms of 'never' likely to occur.
- Often internal to their core identity: "I always ruin relationships! Why is it that nothing good ever happens to me?" The self is seen as the cause of badness, almost in a superstitious sense sometimes.
Depressive thinkers will tend to minimize (or even completely fail to recognize) positives when they do occur. If something good happens, they see it as:
- An exception, rather than spreading it to cover all aspects of their life as they might do with the negative occurrence.
- Fragile and impermanent: "Yes, it's good; but it's just too good to last!".
- Originating outside of themselves: "People were just trying to be kind when they said they liked my painting!".
Do you recognize any of these ways of thinking?
Seligman found that children tend to learn their explanatory styles from their mothers (or their primary caregiver). In this way, we can learn depressive attitudes. But once you know about these ways of thinking, you can very quickly check yourself and help improve motivation, hope, and morale.
In conclusion, it could be one or a combination of the above that's been making you feel depressed. Beating depression is partly about understanding:
- What you need to feel okay and thrive in life.
- How to make efforts to meet your emotional and physical needs in healthy ways.
- How too much negative introspection and worry lead to increased dreaming, which in turn leads to next day exhaustion: the 'flatness' so often associated with depression. And how to make steps to either practically problem solve worries or reframe the worry so the thought no longer causes a stress reaction.
- What other lifestyle factors may have been contributing to feelings of depression, such as medication side effects, bad diet, or too little relaxation or exercise.
- Your own thinking styles and how to catch yourself using unhelpful depressive styles and stop it.
When considering depression, I am reminded of the little boy who decided to confront the terrorizing giant who appeared on the horizon every day. As he walked toward it, a strange thing happened. The closer he got, the smaller the giant became. Eventually, he was able to hold the 'giant' in his hand.
"What is your name, O creature that shrinks as I approach you?" asked the boy.
The now tiny former giant replied: "My name is fear!"