Sandy struggled with spells of depression her entire life. She’d be feeling OK, when suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, she’d get depressed again.
She’d lose interest in things she previously enjoyed. She’d lose motivation for performing daily tasks. She’d feel guilty and worthless. She’d withdraw from loved ones. She’d have a hard time getting out of bed. She’d stay home, eating and drinking too much, her depression deepening.
Sandy didn’t know it. But her depression didn’t spontaneously arise. It followed a cycle. In his excellent book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion psychologist Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D, calls this cycle a “depression loop.” (Sandy’s story appears in his book.)
“I’ve found during my work with depression that it’s helpful to envision it as a kind of circular process: an automatic loop rather than a linear set of events,” writes Goldstein.
The loop consists of thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors that perpetuate depression. Any cue can trigger this loop. According to Goldstein, who pens the Psych Central blog “Mindfulness & Psychotherapy,” it might be a subconscious thought, a memory, emotion or event in your life.
It might be subtle or severe, negative or positive. It might be losing your job, getting rejected by a friend, starting a new job, becoming a parent or even going on vacation.
Goldstein describes the loop in this way:
- Thoughts: After a cue, your mind starts spinning stories. “The brain anxiously defaults to reaching back into the past, referencing and rehashing negative events to try to give the cue meaning and context.” It starts anticipating all the many catastrophes that can result because of that cue, triggering more and more stress.
- Emotions: Sadness and anxiety set in or peak. Other thoughts start simmering, such as “Why am I getting depressed?” or “This always happens to me” or “I’m hopeless.” “The more you identify with the narrative, the deeper the spiral of anxiety and depression goes.”
- Sensations: You start experiencing such sensations as heaviness, fatigue and insomnia.
- Behavior: All of the above influence your ability to make healthy choices in your life. You might unwittingly engage in behavior that fuels your depression. That only leads to more negative thoughts, painful emotions and uncomfortable sensations.
For instance, for Sandy, an upset email from a client triggered anxious thoughts about losing the client and sensations such as shallow breathing and a racing heart. She started thinking hopeless thoughts about her business’s future. She started avoiding her work. And she started feeling more and more depressed.
Over time, getting caught up in the depression loop changes our brains. According to Goldstein:
“When we practice anything in life over and over again, it starts to become automatic; in psychology, we call that a conditioned habitual reaction, and in neuroscience, it’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Right now eighty billion to one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons, are interacting with what some have said are one trillion connections, called synapses, in an unimaginably fast and dynamic network. When we do something over and over — whether it’s something we’re trying to learn, such as improving our tennis swing; or something we’d rather not learn, like an anxiety response to dogs after being bitten by one — neurons in our brains fire together. As we repeat these actions, they eventually wire together, making the process an unconscious habit.”
The good news is that we can interject in this unconscious habit, instead of automatically following the loop. By understanding your depression loop and recognizing when it’s happening, you can pull yourself out of the loop or even prevent it.
Goldstein suggests making a list of your depression cues and the loop that ensues. As he asks his clients, “How do you know that depression is coming on?”
In Uncovering Happiness he includes these common examples: The thought “I’ve messed up again” leads to irritability, feeling heavy and talking too much.
“I am unlovable” leads to moodiness, feeling wired and drinking too much. “Things are never going to get better” leads to grief, nausea and watching too much TV. “I am a fraud” leads to emptiness, blurry thinking and overspending.
Goldstein also suggests checking in with your thoughts, emotions, sensations and behaviors throughout the day or in the evening. If a cue comes up, acknowledge it. Name it. Note that you might be entering a depression loop. Because when you do, as Goldstein writes, “you are in a space of awareness — a choice point — where you can begin to take action.”
Taking action includes harnessing these five “natural antidepressants,” which Goldstein delves into in Uncovering Happiness:
- Mindfulness: paying attention to the present moment without judgment.
- Self-compassion: acknowledging your pain and supporting yourself through it.
- Purpose: knowing that you have something to contribute to the world.
- Play: engaging in purposeless activities that you find fun or interesting.
- Mastery: focusing on learning and growing versus achieving.
Depression lies. It convinces you that you’ll never feel better, that your situation is hopeless.
There are many ways you can get better. Recognizing your depression loop and nurturing the above natural antidepressants are some of the powerful strategies for overcoming depression.