Depression Is a Trance State

It has to be broken.

Posted Jul 29, 2020

Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash

Pamela gave a deep sigh. ‘I’m just a waste of space. I don’t do anything useful. I don’t think I ever have.’ Tears wavered on her eyelashes and threatened to fall. 

I raised my eyebrows and said, with genuine curiosity, ‘What, never?’ The staccato in my tone grabbed her attention and, for a moment, I had broken into her depressive trance.

‘What about that time you told me about when you helped out as a volunteer at the local primary school that hot summer? And a little boy really took to you and used to tug at your skirt? You remember his wide smile and his sweet little voice?

Pamela’s face became wreathed in smiles. ‘Oh, he was so lovely! He kept shooting his arm in the air, nearly falling over backwards, and saying, “Can I go with Pamwa? Can I go with Pamwa?”, when we were hearing the children read or picking teams for PE.’

‘So you felt useful then.’


‘You felt useful then.’

She frowned. ‘Oh, but that was … different.’

Yes, it was different. And, when people are in depressive trance states, the fact that they have felt different at other times is exactly what they lose access to.

Depression as a trance state might be a new concept to some. We are more used to associating trance with euphoria or joy – like being entranced by a gripping story or piece of music or oratory, perhaps. But a trance is any state of highly focused attention. 

Sometimes people are so focused that they don’t notice what is happening around them – in the famous experiment, participants asked to watch a video of a basketball game and count the number of passes made by one of the teams failed to see a woman dressed as a gorilla walk out among the players.1 People with depression are a bit like that. They tend to notice only what they are looking for – life is terrible – and can’t see anything else.

I remember working with a young man in the depths of depression, who told me nothing interesting had ever happened in his life. It was only by accident that I found out, to my amazement, that he had been a guitarist in a band, with which he had travelled across Europe. 

However, a focused state may often be disturbed surprisingly easily – a small, sudden movement in the crowd can put top tennis players off their serve, for instance. So we need to seize any chance to puncture the depressive trance, move the dark clouds aside and shine in a little sunshine.

My reminder to Pamela brought her up short. Though she tried to dismiss it, she couldn’t help but remember that, when she was involved in something that mattered to her, outside of herself, she could experience achievement and satisfaction and sense of meaning. We were able to go on to explore ways that she could do that again.

The husband of a woman who had been deeply depressed for 11 years once begged Ivan Tyrrell, co-founder of the human givens approach, to see her. After half an hour she was still so suffused with misery that, on a hunch, Ivan asked what made her laugh. Of course, she said she never laughed – and never had. Ivan persisted, asking her to close her eyes and let her mind drift back to a time when she had tears of laughter rolling down her face.

She obediently closed her eyes. Nothing. And then slowly she started to smile, then to giggle, then to splutter with laughter, tears again rolling down her cheeks. Having broken the numbing spell, Ivan was able to focus her outwards, asking her what she would most want to do if she didn’t have the depression. She said she wished she and her husband could go on a holiday, because they had both loved to travel before her long depression. 

Quickly Ivan called in the husband, who was waiting outside. He was amazed to find his wife smiling, and they agreed to book a holiday as part of the ‘treatment’. Although there was much more work still to do, it was the first step in breaking her depression trance for good.1

I always work hard to get highly detailed good memories from clients with depression, stimulating recall of smells, sounds, colours, textures, etc, associated with the happy event I have nudged them to identify. Then, as with Pamela, I can vividly retell it, reminding them that there have been joyful or fulfilling or meaningful times in their lives, regardless of what the depression trance tells them. Getting their attention and then showing how things have been – and can again be – different is the first crucial step in breaking it.


1. Chabris, C (2010). The Invisible Gorilla: and other ways our intuitions deceive us. HarperCollins.

2. Griffin, J and Tyrrell, I (2013). Human Givens: the new approach to emotional health and clear thinking. HG Publishing.