Charting the Depths

Reflections on the science of depression.

Can You Think Your Way Out of a Depression?

Think about it

Whether it's advanced language, ability to reflect upon the past and plan for the future, or our access to a rich shared culture, our unique human traits are usually a source of pride. But, in my last post, I explored the riddle of rising depression in humans. It seems that the same capabilities that enable our species to harness fire and put a man on the moon lead to self-defeating efforts to control low mood. Do our special cognitive capabilities play into a uniquely human pathway into depression?

A main function of low mood is to draw attention to threats and obstacles in unfavorable environments. The consequences are a pause in behavior and a more careful analysis of the environment. In humans, this analysis is more explicit than in a tiger or a tree shrew. Our advanced language ability permits construction of detailed theories about where painful feelings come from.

It's natural to expect, "If I understand why I feel bad, I will know how to fix it." Humans have unique powers of mental simulation (we don't need to put our hand on a hot burner to know it would be a bad idea to touch). Although it's easy to make fun of coulda, shoulda, woulda counterfactual thinking, our skill at understanding why bad things have happened helps us to prevent their recurrence. By forewarning ourselves, we are forearmed.

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As a scientist who studies mood, I'm naturally all for the examined life. Insight-oriented psychotherapy, weekly talk therapy sessions with the guidance of an expert, can be helpful for depression. It's also possible for a novice to think their way out of low mood and depression by themselves. But humans are not nearly as good at this as they think they are. Here are several pitfalls of trying to think your way out of a depression.

(1) Repetitively thinking about the causes and consequences of low mood can become habitual. Some people do it even when there aren't significant challenges in the environment. Research shows that excessive use of this strategy, sometimes called rumination, is associated with depression.

(2) Our advanced language and ability to hold ideas in mind forms a dangerous echo chamber for mood. We are in a sense too good at meaning-making. We can easily think about the meaning of a troubling situation well after the situation has passed (my boss seems mad at me; maybe it was that email I sent three weeks ago?). A bad mood can prompt a potentially unlimited number of stories and implications. These may or may not be relevant to the source of the mood. The meaning-making machine might be doing its thing 24/7, in full overdrive, coming up with dozens of reasons for "why I am so blue?" All the while, low mood could be due to a thyroid deficiency, or some other "meaningless" source.

(3) People tend to be overconfident in the use of thought. It's much easier to list these pitfalls than to recognize in the moment when thinking is not working. The belief that, "I can just think my way out of depression" comes partially from the fact that we humans solve so many other problems by thinking!


(4) Our meaning-making machine can get stuck.  The worst situation is when persistent thinking does not arrive at a stable theory of the problem, does not solve the problem, and cannot come to terms with the problem; it simply perseverates on the fact of the problem.

(5) As time wears on, the focus of analysis turns away from a problematic environment to a problematic self. This escalating-self-focus is far from benign.  A chimpanzee does not lie awake at night thinking, "I am a terrible mother." A human does. The next day starts sleep deprived, with a mood hangover and little new wisdom won. What started out as an environmental analysis ends up as vicious deconstruction of the self.

(6) Repetitive thinking on the failings of the self is associated with a deepening of depression. Again, this exposes a unique human vulnerability. A dog does not ask itself, "why can't I just get over this?" or "why am I so weak?" An elaborate conceptual self puts us at greater risk for serious depression when sustained analysis of mood holds the thinker at fault. It's as if we humans are constantly playing an action film of our own life in our heads. When times are good, we are the hero; when they are bad, we are the villian of the piece.

(7) Once the meaning-making machine is up and running, it's harder to change gears than you might expect. Our meaning-making machine does not respond to the easy advice, like "snap out of it" or "stop thinking about it". One must be quite clever to avoid getting sucked into a spiral of negative thoughts. Talk is cheap. Totally squelching mood-relevant thoughts is almost impossible once a serious depression has taken hold. Rather, the trick is to critically engage your thoughts without getting embroiled in them. Some people figure out how to do this on their own. Others use several therapies such as acceptance, mindfulness, or cognitive behavioral --all of which involve techniques for turning down the volume on the verbal meaning analyzer. The goal: To become a detached spectator of your own mind. As you learn how to stand apart from your stream of nasty cognitions, you can question them as they occur, a first step in reclaiming thought for psychological health.

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Are you able to think your way out of depression?

Write me at chartingthedepths@gmail.com

Jonathan Rottenberg is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, where he directs the Mood and Emotion Laboratory.

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