Sunday, October 12, 2008

Depression: An Introduction

The common thinking today is that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance. This is true as far as it goes. The often unasked question is, "What causes the chemical imbalance." Research for the last several decades has shown convincingly that depression is caused by our thought processes.

Since the brain operates on electrical and chemical changes, it makes sense that our thinking can have an effect on our emotions. Since so much of our brain is connected to so many other parts of the brain, it not surprising that thinking (which takes place in the neocortex) can effect our emotions (which originates in our limbic system).

Before we look at how thinking produces depression, let’s remember the chain of events of which depression is a part. The chain looks something like this:

  • An environmental event causes a personal loss
  • The loss is processed by a thinking style called worry
  • The result is depression
  • The behavior associated with depression is lifelessness
  • The consequences of this behavior is that the depressed person experiences more loss

You can see that this sequence of events becomes circular in nature which explains why people can be depressed for so many years. Let’s unpack each of these links in the chain.

Life is full of disappointments, most of which we cannot control. The size of a personal loss does not determine whether we get depressed or not. A small loss may result in minor depression (called dysthymia) while a large loss may result in major depression. This is not always the case because it is not the loss, per se, that causes the depression. It is our perception and interpretation of the loss that triggers the depression. Losses can be major ones like health, money, or a loved one. Small losses could include a minor memory loss, misplaced car keys, etc.

There is a concept in psychology called "cognitive specificity" that supposes there is a close relationship between a specific thought and a specific emotion. In this chain, the specific worry that causes depression is some variation of, "I’m a worthless human being." There are many ways that people can believe this falsehood. This specific belief is what is called a "core belief" because it a belief so deep and ingrained that changing it is extremely difficult. I’ve heard people say they are really negative about themselves when they get depressed. This is backwards. They are depressed because they believe the negative thoughts.

The opposite of depression is not jubilation or feeling good. If we reinterpret our losses in a healthy and realistic way, we will feel sadness instead of depression. Depression and sadness are opposites of each other. As with all emotions, depression and sadness exist along a continuum. A person can have a little depression or a lot of depression; they can have a little sadness or a lot of sadness. Regrettably, our society thinks that grief (a lot of sadness) is the same as depression. This is not so. Unfortunately, many people who are in a state of bereavement are given medication to help them feel better. A healthier approach is to let the grief or bereavement run its course.

Depressed people exhibit helpless behavior. This does not necessarily mean they crawl into bed and pull the covers over their heads for a week. Legitimate behaviors can be done in way that is a form of helplessness because it has no benefit for the depressed person except to keep them depressed. Common behaviors that can be engaged in excessively include gambling, shopping, eating, to name a few. These can be helpless behaviors to a depressed person. On the other hand the overly wrought person who is sad naturally cries (unless it is accompanied by strong depression). Sadness tears release an endorphin-like chemical in the brain to make the sad person "feel better." Crying is the healing process for sadness. Everyone should be allowed to cry as much as he or she needs to. Some people are uncomfortable around someone who is crying heavily and often try to get the sad person to stop. This is unfortunate because the crying helps people to move forward in their journey instead of going in circles because of depression.

The consequence of depression is to run in circles; the consequence of sadness is movement in a straight line. However, life is not always so black and white. Often, people can have sadness and depression at the same time. In this case, the sadness will cause crying, but the depression, because it swings back on itself, will continue the crying. This is why so many people assume that if a person cries too long, they must be depressed. People do not cry because they are depressed. They cry because they are sad over a personal loss.

Understanding the depression chain is the first step to finding ways out of the depression. The tools one needs for changing thoughts are collectively called "cognitive restructuring" which is just a fancy name for "changing the way you think." The major problem with changing thoughts is that doing so means changing a mental habit and habits can be very difficult to change. One of the reasons for this is that habits are often something you do, that while you are doing it, you may not know you are doing it.

We will be posting more material on how one goes about changing the thought and belief system that generates depression. Please feel free to leave a comment below or contact us via email at

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