Depression is a state of behavioral shutdown. It generally emerges when an individual’s patterns of investment fail to meet their needs for psychological nourishment. As a result, the individual’s negative emotion system is jacked up, their positive emotion system dampened, and they have lots of difficulty initiating new activities. Although depression usually makes functional sense, it also often makes things worse, resulting in a vicious cycle of shutdown.
I have previously noted that the behavioral shutdown model gives rise to the idea that there are three broad classes, which I called depressive reactions, depressive disorders, and depressive diseases. A former student and now excellent psychological practitioner, Parisa Montazeri, asked if I would write a post describing the various kinds of depressive shutdowns in more detail. So I extend the analysis here to label more specific kinds of depressive shutdown. I don’t consider this an “official taxonomy,” but rather a helpful resource for people to increase their vocabulary on what might be driving their (or a loved one’s) shutdown.
Here are 23 kinds of depressive reactions, in alphabetical order:
Sometimes called “situational depression,” this occurs when an individual experiences a significant life event that they cannot adjust to, such as a new school or work environment, or family life following divorce. Nothing feels right in the new setting, and the individual longs for a return to the way things were. If the situation changes, their mood usually returns to normal. [It is worth noting as an aside here that adjustment-based problems/depressions in soldiers and families following WWII was one of the major forces that gave rise to professional psychology.]
This is characterized by individuals with very different “self-states”: one side that is energetic, enthusiastic, normal, and fine, and another side that feels completely different, bitter, pessimistic, hopeless, or irritable. This may present as “crazy mood swings,” which are triggered by stress or alcohol use, but often reflect two very different ways of seeing or experiencing the world that the executive self cannot integrate, thus the person vacillates between them.
3. Complicated Bereavement/Loss-Based
This emerges when a loss—usually of a loved one, such as a spouse or child—is so central it cannot be processed. The individual cannot, or perhaps does not want to, move on.
This emerges when there are no good avenues available for psychological nourishment: for example, an impoverished community, or someone living in a desolate place or in a state of homelessness.
These are neurological and hormonal changes that short-circuit the positive affect system or jack up the negative affect system. For example, thyroid problems and strokes in the left hemisphere (the seat of more positive affect systems) are associated with depression. See also double-developmental or melancholic.
This is a chronic developmental pattern, usually starting in childhood (see here for a great description of it). Especially prevalent if there were serious problems in attachment or major child abuse, it completely derails or disrupts the normal developmental sequence. For example, the normal seek-and-acquire processes driven by the positive emotion system are greatly impeded. The “double” refers to the fact that the person is almost always in a low-grade depressed state and then dips into a major depressive episode periodically.
Now officially called “persistent depressive disorder,” this refers to a low-grade negative or “blah” feeling that pervades a person for years. It's related to personality traits of low extraversion and neuroticism and was once believed to be a "personality type," called a depressive personality.
8. Existential Meaninglessness
This emerges when a person feels there is no higher purpose or point to living that they can truly invest in. It's a pervasive sense of “what difference does it make” and “people are just bullshitting themselves.” It may emerge after an individual loses their belief in their religious upbringing, or as they try to achieve their life goals and either fail or find that even in succeeding they are hollow.
This emerges when an individual is enormously invested in some particular achievement (e.g., a job, a research project, money, or an identity characteristic like intellect), and it fails, resulting in shame, loss, and paralysis. Similar to complicated bereavement, only here it emerges because of the experience of a personal failure.
This is associated with a complete inability to control the environment. A low sense of self-efficacy, a low external sense of control, and/or a real-life situation of being trapped or imprisoned or abused—for example, an abused housewife or Seligman’s dogs.
This is a belief that nothing can be done to change the outcome. The race is lost and can never be won. It can emerge at any life stage, but is probably particularly prevalent in the elderly. I thought of this when reading this article on how depression is now rampant in farmers.
Humans are social creatures that need to be known and valued by important others. Many folks fall through the cracks in our modern individualistic society. They live alone or have no intimate relations and feel disconnected and unfulfilled. And loneliness is quite rampant in our society.
This deep physiological shutdown is not very responsive to environmental or psychosocial interventions, at least in the short term. Slowed speech, trouble getting out of bed, and fuzzy or distorted cognitive processes (as in delusions), this is a complete psycho-bio-physiological shutdown. It exemplifies a “disease-like” state of depression.
14. Neurotic/Negative Affect Syndrome
High in neuroticism (the sensitivity to stress and negative emotional reactions) with little distress tolerance, the neurotic depressed individual is anxious, worried, ruminative, defensive, and perfectionistic.
It sucks to be chronically ill or in pain. Enough said.
Chronic conflicts in identity, problems processing emotions, chronic relational conflicts, and so forth give rise to a disaffected, shutdown mood.
Giving birth is a major process, both behaviorally and hormonally, involving massive fluctuations, coupled with much stress. If the woman is vulnerable, doesn’t receive much in the way of good social support, and has trouble harmonizing with her child, shutdown is a likely response. And it often generates feelings of self-blame and guilt for being a bad mother, which only makes things worse.
18. Private/Split Off
Happy or “fine” on the outside, this is when an individual experiences periods of intense misery that they cannot understand, accept, or share with others. So they suffer in private, hide their feelings, and try to fake it until they make it. Sometimes, though, they “blow” and then end up killing themselves, and everyone around them can’t believe it, because they seemed fine. See here for an example.
19. Rage-Based/Turning Against the Other
This is a simmering, irritable paranoia, whereby others are seen as the cause of all one’s problems. Likely, these individuals have a history of being betrayed or traumatized, of which they cannot let go. Often, they treat others poorly, which only leaves them more isolated and bitter.
As is often included in official diagnostic taxonomies like the DSM (i.e., SAD), a number of individuals get depressed as the weather gets darker and colder. This might relate to some sort of partial hibernation tendency, which would be consistent with the basic logic of the BSM.
21. Shame-Based/Turning Against the Self
One of the most common features, this emerges when the individual attacks themselves for their feelings, so they feel negative and then attack themselves for feeling negative. These are individuals who “hate being this way” and hate being a burden. They also tend to be very worried about criticism from others and socially anxious.
22. Substance Abuse Induced
This is secondary to becoming dependent on particular substances (drugs, foods, etc.), which are usually taken to dull the pain. Then, either the pain comes back, and the person feels worse because of the problems of the substance use, or the person stops, but is left feeling empty and experiences chronic withdrawal and cravings.
When an individual experiences a trauma that cannot be integrated into consciousness, the episodic memory and associated feelings remain active and press upon the individual as flashbacks, intrusive imageries, nightmares, and so forth. It is exhausting, disturbing, and paralyzing.
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