Understanding the psychology behind depression

By Hanan Parvez

Depression is not a mental illness, it is a normal and useful emotional state.

All emotions are a means of communication between your conscious and your subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind is continually monitoring your life, watching your actions, and trying to make sure that your happiness and well-being are maintained.

The question that arises is this: If our subconscious mind cares about our well-being so much then why does it send us an emotion as severe as depression?

Before we can tackle that question let me tell you a bit about Veronica...

Lately, Veronica had become overweight due to her unhealthy eating habits and was very concerned about it. She knew that if she improved her eating habits and worked out regularly she could end her concerns but she couldn't muster enough will power and persistence to do so.

Every time she decided she would change her habits, she couldn't stick to them and gave up too soon. Looking in the mirror every morning reminded her of the fact that she was overweight and this made her feel worse.

To improve her mood, she ate more sugary foods only to make her weight problem worse. Even though she knew it wasn't the right thing to do, she kept doing it nevertheless just to regulate her mood.

This cycle of 'feeling bad-eating-feeling bad' went on for days till a time came when she decided that she couldn't take it anymore. Her body-weight had spiraled to new heights and she felt very depressed.

Depression, the breaking point

Not being able to solve your problems or satisfy your needs is the major cause of depression. As a result of the frustration and stress that is experienced by not being able to do what we want continuously over a period of time, depression sets in as soon as we start to believe that all hope is gone and when our physiology is about to get compromised.

Although depression is correlated with a chemical imbalance in the brain and some other observable brain structure changes such as reduction in the size of the hippocampus, these changes don't cause depression.1

Rather depression is caused by stressful life events.2,3 Depression occurs because there's a certain limit up to which our bodies can handle stress. When that limit is exceeded, our body says, "That’s enough! I can bear it no more".

It's a well-known fact that stress is bad for our physical health. It not only decreases our immunity increasing our chances of catching diseases but also results in premature aging. Many diseases are directly or indirectly linked to stress.

Since prolonged stress is bad for us, depression kicks in to protect us from the physiological harm that may result from stress.

Just like Hooke’s law in physics says that there comes a breaking point for materials when they're stretched beyond a limit, depression is the breaking point that is reached when our stress levels cross a certain limit over a period of time.

Depression decreases your energy levels drastically to stop you from doing the frustrating, stress-causing activities that you've been doing up until now so that you can take a break and look at your problems and needs from a different perspective.

depressed woman
Depression can cause us to lie in bed all day long because we have very low energy levels.

Depression can be good for you

Depression not only protects you from physiological harm but also from a psychological breakdown. Your subconscious mind sends you the feelings of depression so that you may reflect and take appropriate steps toward solving your problems or satisfying your needs.

Depression allows you to ruminate over and analyze the complex problem that may have caused your depression. Depressed people are fixated on their hopeless, complex and seemingly unsolvable problems. Their minds want them to concentrate on the festered problem at hand and not get distracted by unnecessary distractions.

Depressed people show a higher brain activity in a region called left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) which is responsible for maintaining attention towards the target problem and eliminate other distractions.4

When you begin solving the problem that caused your depression- you experience immense happiness and satisfaction.

So, in a way, depression can result in happiness if it's well-understood and responded to appropriately. This last point is especially important and needs further explanation.

Depression results from hopelessness

We experience the feelings of depression when we believe there's no hope left for us to satisfy our needs or to solve our problems. Depression is simply a warning signal of last resort from your mind telling you that something has gone wrong and that fixing it might no longer be possible.

Depression usually starts as an innocuous bad mood warning you that some aspect of your life isn't right and needs fixing. If you ignore this warning then your bad moods will intensify because the subconscious mind increases the intensity of emotions to force us to notice them.

If you keep ignoring these signals and leave your problem unattended, the mind uses depression to force you to pay attention to the problem so gone out of hand.

When people get depressed they feel low, sad, helpless and have very little energy. To get rid of these bad feelings they usually resort to short-term mood fixes such as binge eating, exercising, traveling, etc.

When they finish these activities depression finds them again because they didn't respond to depression appropriately.

Also, using medications is an ineffective way to curb depression because it does nothing to address the underlying cause of depression. Antidepressants are basically drugs that you're using to temporarily relieve yourself from the painful symptoms of depression.

Therefore, they're highly addictive and many people are unable to stop these drugs because of intolerable withdrawal symptoms.5

Ending depression

The only way to ease depression and to kill it is to respond to your mind’s signals instead of ignoring them. We can respond to depression by first acknowledging our feelings, identifying the real reason that is making us depressed and then:
  •  Finding solutions to our problems and applying them.
  • Accepting what happened and moving on.
Note that acceptance won’t happen if your mind thinks you can solve the problem.

For instance, if your loved one dies, then your mind will let you recover quickly from this loss because it knows that getting the person back isn't possible. But if you break up with your lover, you may find it hard to recover because your mind knows that the person is 'somewhere out there' and not with you.

Similarly, if you wanted to become successful but failed to do so, your mind won’t let you accept this failure if it believes success is possible for you. You'll soon realize that you're fooling yourself and end up getting depressed.

Even if you can’t get rid of the problem right now just finding some hope can be enough to alleviate depression because depression is nothing results from a loss of hope. Even making a plan can ease your depression because your subconscious sees making a plan as the first step toward solving a problem.

How Veronica ended her depression

After her depression, Veronica decided that she'd had enough. She promised herself that she would change her eating habits, exercise regularly and do whatever it takes to get back in shape. She made a plan and followed it religiously.

All days were not rosy but whenever she went off-track, she quickly picked herself up again and got back on track. After 6 months she became fit again and of course very happy.

That’s how you kick depression out of your life.

Anything that is currently bothering you has the potential to make you depressed sooner or later if you don't deal with it appropriately- if you don't nip the evil in the bud.



References:

1. Leo, J., & Lacasse, J. R. (2008). The media and the chemical imbalance theory of depression. Society45(1), 35-45.

2. Kendler, K. S., Karkowski, L. M., & Prescott, C. A. (1999). Causal relationship between stressful life events and the onset of major depression. American Journal of Psychiatry156(6), 837-841.

3. Hammen, C. (2005). Stress and depression. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol.1, 293-319.

4. Andrews, P. W., & Thomson Jr, J. A. (2009). The bright side of being blue: depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychological review116(3), 620.

5. G√łtzsche, P. C. (2014). Why I think antidepressants cause more harm than good. The Lancet Psychiatry1(2), 104-106.



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