Don't Be Swayed

Smartly sizing up people and relationships.

'Editing Away' Depression

How we are exposed to information can effect who we are.

When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in 1986, the tragedy made headlines in all Western newspapers. But the Soviet press buried the story in the back pages. In fact, your entire perception of the world during the Cold War would have been markedly different if you had received your news from an American newspaper or a Soviet publication. But it's not just capitalism versus communism. Even today a story that makes the headlines in one newspaper can receive little fanfare in another. When it comes down to it, the editors--whomever they might be--get to decide what information makes for important news and how the story is conveyed. And because this selection process has a subjective element to it, it's impossible to get 100% objective news. The editor's own "bias" slips through, no matter how scrupulous he or she might be.

What's really interesting to me is the way each of us edits our own personal "newspaper." We have all this information that keeps streaming into our lives, in the form of feelings and thoughts and ideas. Some of these informational pieces are pretty ordinary and usually get burried in the back pages: "I can't believe the summer is almost over;" "I need to water the plants;" "What was the name of my third grade teacher? It's on the tip of my tongue..."

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Other, more pressing information, might get brief headline status: "Whoa, my credit card statement is almost overdue;" "I'm really excited about the date I have lined up for this weekend."

Although headlines shift quite regularly, on occassion, if something major happens, e.g. "Sweet, I just got a promotion at work!!" the headline sticks around longer and has more of an effect on us.

But when a person gets depressed, something different happens. The entire process is turned upside down. It's as if the regular editorial personnel gets fired and replaced with a totally new team with completely different notions of what makes a headline. The first thing that happens is that the headline becomes very negative in substance and very general in scope. An ordinary enough headline (e.g. "Time to change the car battery") gets pushed to the back, and taking its place are a new line of headlines: "Life feels like crap;" "I don't have any energy anymore;" "Things will always be this way." The thing about these type of headlines is that they make you feel pretty helpless and hopeless, they suck all the energy away, and they're so general in scope that it's difficult to challenge them. For example, it's easy enough to say, "Maybe I'll have my friend help me change the car battery instead." But it's a lot tougher to come back and retort, "No, my life is actually pretty meaningful if I stop to think about it."

To further explore this metaphor, you see the same shift on a national level when a country is hit by a disaster, whether a financial one or surprise violent attack. All the other stories get pushed to the back, the entire mood shifts, and day after day the headlines deal with the same subject matter. But as a country, at least we go through it together. Each of us felt the pain after the attacks of 9/11, but it was also comforting to know that we were going through it as a nation. I remember that for two weeks after 9/11 I didn't feel productive, but no one expected me to be. It was understandable. I didn't have to explain myself or to feel bad about it. My headline of sadness and lack of energy matched what everyone around me was feeling.

But when someone feels depressed--and all of a sudden their personal headlines become negative and catastrophic--it feels very isolating. These are your personal headlines. There's no national event that you can point to.

And, to make matters even more complicated, unlike the normal rotation of our mental "newspaper" headlines, depression headlines stick around for a long time. So much so, that it often feels like they're going to be there forever. These headlines are so extreme that they're always wrong in their conclusion: An otherwise innocuous event (e.g. "I forgot to pay my electric bill on time") takes on catastrophic proportions (e.g. "I can never do anything right.") Another commonality I've seen with these types of "headlines" is that they're of a self-blaming nature and they often have an underlying component of guilt.

As a therapist, I see my role, to use the metaphor I've employed here, as restoring the "real" editorial team into place. I don't usually talk about it using the headlines metaphor, but it's a very good way of understanding how depression takes over a person and what can be done about it. As a therapist I try to restore the rightful team, the original core or "true self" into place. But I can't just argue with my client. I can't say, "You know what, your 'headlines' are all wrong. I disagree with your perception." Then I'm just using force to try to get my way.

But because the headlines are extreme in their stance, I can start by challenging their content, using actual examples from my client's life: "You say that nothing's going right in your life, and I know that you feel that way, but the way you describe your relationship with your friends, it sounds like you're there for them and they're there for you. I'm getting the sense that it's really important for you."

Depressed people don't give themselves enough credit. They perceive themselves in such negative terms that they simply forget about their good attributes. A lot of times this process ends up in a debate. I argue for what I believe is a more balanced and accurate view, and my client feels I'm being overly kind and optimistic. But to me, I'm just calling them as I see them. And if I can show my client that the headline is not accurate, if I can challenge the headlines--over and over again-- then I can start to use "evidence" from my client's life to disprove the headlines.

But the question still remains: Where did the new editorial team that came up with the depression headlines come from? Who are these 'new reporters'? And in my experience they're always internalized voices from the past. Something that my parents used to say, or a teacher repeated. So if my dad was a nice man but when he got upset he'd call me "selfish" and then a couple of my teachers also repeated that, and my last ex broke up with me and blamed me for not being caring enough, then the headline, "I'm self-centered and cruel" can take over. It's these type of messages, that get internalized, balloon, and then get plastered as absolutes. Even though logically I may know that these statements are too extreme and innacurate, they feel like they're accurate descriptors. And that's why it's so hard to shake them off.

In a way, I think this is true for all of us--as it is true for any newspaper--we all have times when some extreme headlines that are not fully accurate creep up. But when there's a barrage of them, if I'm going through a rough time and they pop up, it's a lot more difficult to deal with them and restore order. It then becomes easier to buy into the headlines and this is what leads to depression. But the good thing, and that's what I've learned from doing therapy, is that just as a headline can gain durability, it can also get shaken. And the space of therapy helps the restoration process. Of course, a good therapy-client team is not the only way to overcome depression, but I think what tragically happens is that most people who feel depressed try going at it alone, and that makes it a lot more difficult. The unfortunate thing about depression is that when you're in it, it's really difficult to believe that it's possible to combat it. I often find myself reminiscing with clients:

"If I had told you two months ago, when we first started working together, that you'd be feeling differently in three months' time, that you'd be feeling the way you're feeling today, what would you have said?"

"I would've said that's impossible. I would've said that you're crazy."

Psychologist Rom Brafman has a private practice in Palo Alto, California; he's the co-author of Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.

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