Stuck in a negative network, changing thoughts or actions is just plain hard.
“I cannot do what you suggest – I know it won’t work.”
That was Jon’s mantra as he sat in my office and said that he can never be happy. The one thing he wants – a wife and family – will never happen because fate has determined he is not going to achieve that goal. Yet most opportunities he gets to meet someone new, he believes will not work.
Why is he resisting meeting new people when someday one might be interested in him? His inability to move from one idea to another to create a change in thinking or in attitude is typical for depression. And, as in Jon’s case, it seems like it's intentional. Or at least that's what family and friends see when they tell their depressed loved ones to “Just do it!” It is easy to judge from the outside, but it is hard to see on the inside of a person with depression.
That stuckness is a feature of underlying neurobiology. All of us think in networks: when we start to think about a topic, we enter a network of related concepts that allows thinking to be efficient and helpful. Ideas are linked and things we need to know are easier to access when we enter a network of similar ideas, experiences, or emotions. That is why when people are trying to develop a creative solution to a problem, they brainstorm. That is, they utter or write every idea that pops into their minds about solving a problem – no matter how ridiculous it sounds on the surface – and do not assess the idea until they have a long list of options. Brainstorming is valuable because it helps us remove ourselves from the already framed network and helps create a new one.
That same efficient brain that networks and categorizes also causes a problem when depression hits. Entering a negative network that connects similar thoughts, experiences and emotions results in a depressed person linking negative networks. It promotes the discouraged outlook that is typical of depression. And, unfortunately, in depression, the ability to move to another more positive network is impaired. The weakened activity of the neurotransmitters causes "stuckness" in the pathway in the brain that allows shifting of thought and emotion.
That pathway includes a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) that should allow for rapid shifting between emotion and thinking and should aid in developing creative problem solving. But when people suffer depression, this pathway of the brain is impaired. It may be over active - spinning in place without creating movement. Or it may be sluggish and unable pass along cognitive decisions like, “I will try something new,” to the emotional part of the brain that generates the discouraged, “I never have good results.”
Emotion rules when there is depression. The negative “It won’t work for me,” style of thinking seems to have more power than the optimistic, “Just give it a try,” method of thinking.
Sitting with Jon, I want to say, “Just do what I am suggesting!” I want him to borrow my ability to generate a new idea, but some things have to change before he can try something new. He cannot respond to “just do it” while his negative networking is making him believe that his case is different. His notions about how to act are the ones in the network of what he has typically done, which is a very negative network.
How can he get out of this?
He needs a MAP.
When you use a map – even your navigator – you have to know where you are starting and where you are going. Jon needs to know he is currently stuck and that another way just might be possible. But where is he going? He needs to believe in a reasonable solution. In our conversations, Jon is beginning to believe that his depressed thinking is a problem. Medication might help him be less negative - it can correct the neurotransmitter problems that cause the sluggish or overactive pathway to prevent new ideas. (Supplements and nutrition and sunlight can also help!) Next, he needs to redefine his goal. If marriage to exactly the right person is the only thing that will make him happy, then I cannot help him. He needs a matchmaker and a lot of money for that. If he wants to redefine what a happy life looks like to him, therapy can guide him.
But once he can see the need for help to navigate his goal of a happy life, he needs to find a map. This map will need to take him toward feeling better and developing a more flexible, creative way of thinking. If he can get out of the negative network he will be more able to generate new actions and take charge of his discouraged mood.
MAP – Move, Ask, Play
M – (You may want to consider medication as the first M and then go to this one)
Jon needs to move. Literally, move his body. The stuck brain finds it easier to shift gears when the physical body is moving. Walking, swimming, bike riding can all be good. Try movement without earbuds pumping music. The creative brain will take over and just might jump the tracks of negativity while you move. And vigorous exercise has a way of pumping up energy that lightens depression.
A – Ask for input. When we brainstorm it works better if we have more than one person adding ideas. We spur each other into different networks. Jon might benefit if he shares his challenge of being stuck with a friend or three. And it will be good for him to ask people what gives them happiness or satisfaction. He might hear that there are many ways to be content.
P – Play around with different options. Jon does not have to commit to an idea of what is fun or pleasurable or satisfying. He would benefit from playing with the children in his life whose joy is infectious. Play sports or games. Playing stimulates different networks and may result in some changes in his mood or thoughts that may help him be less depressed.
There is a saying that life is a journey, not a destination. I do not know Jon’s ultimate destination, nor does he. The outcome of this MAP will help him find a better, more creative, and less depressed way of living his life.