Trying to explain major depression to someone who has never truly experienced is close to impossible. I liken it to a woman explaining to a man what it feels like to give birth. Or, for a woman to think about what it’s like to give birth before they actually do it. It’s very difficult to describe the physical experience without going through it firsthand.
When an individual is struggling with a major depression they have negative thoughts that they can’t turn off. The thoughts never stop and the affect how that person experiences the world. So in relation they’ll take actions to deal with the thoughts by trying to escape them or trying to feel pleasure. Common actions are: Sleeping, substance abuse, self-harm, overeating.
To someone who has never experienced depression you may see these actions as laziness or reckless behavior. They are simply coping mechanisms, and quite often they are used to help the person get through their day and try to push away the pervasive negative thoughts.
This article will help you understand what’s going on inside the body of a depressed person and how it affects their thoughts and their life experience.
How do I stop negative thoughts?
Why is it difficult to think positively when a person is dealing with depression?
Major depression is caused by a brain chemical imbalance, so at the physiological level it is impossible for an individual who is suffering to think positively. That is, until they treat the brain chemical issue.
It’s easy to understand this if you think about how your body functions. Your brain is your control center, which allows you to produce thoughts, to experience the world, and to interact with the world using your motor skills. When a system in your brain malfunctions (there are a number of reasons why this happens), then it can alter the way you perceive the world.
There are a number of key brain regions and neurochemicals that are connected to mood. A person with major depression has a malfunction in the communication pathways that allow them to experience pleasure. External input from your senses is still processed, but the functions for positive mood are essentially “turned off”. Therefore a person with depression can only experience their environment as negative.
There is no specific formula that leads to major depression because there are many different causes:
Brain regions. There are brain regions connected to mood that when damaged or impacted by disease, accidents or hormonal changes, can malfunction. Common regions that can malfunction include: Amygdala, Thalamus, Ventromedial cortex, Hippocampus
Brain chemicals. There are brain chemicals connected to mood that can be affected by poor health choices related to diet, drug use, hormonal shifts, disease and damage to the physical brain. Common ones are: Serotonin, Dopamine, Norepinephrine, Acetylcholine, Glutamate, Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Genetics. Scientists suspect that genetics may play a role in mood. There have been many research studies, although this link is not well understood.
Neuroplasticity. The way you learn to think about situations and deal with emotions also plays a role in mood. Through a process known as neuroplasticity, your brain’s anatomy alters. It creates and prunes communication pathways as you experience the world. Brain patterns are reinforced as you repeat behaviors. That includes negative behavior patterns. As these are reinforced, they become automatic, and can result in depression.
What you can do to interrupt negative thinking:
- Be aware. Understand that thoughts are not reality. Life is experienced through perception, which is made up of what we learn and believe. It’s subjective. So what seems true or real for one person is not for another. Understanding that your thoughts are not a reflection of reality, can give you the ability to disrupt negative thinking and choose not to respond to them. Lack of awareness of your thoughts can result in automatic actions. So if you think you are a “loser” and believe that you are one, then you will act like one. If you are aware of this thought however, you can acknowledge the thought as just a thought, then take different actions.
- Diversion. When negative thoughts cycle around in your head sometimes the best thing to do is to divert those thoughts by distracting yourself. Here are some activities:
- Visual art activities that are very basic, such as painting ceramics, creating an abstract painting
- Using an guided audio meditation or visualization exercise to help you relax
- Listening to music through earphones
- Watching television or a movie
- Spending time with or talking to someone you love
- Spending time with animals
- Physical activities
- Learn how to use affirmations. These are positive statements that you say to yourself in your head or out loud that help you separate what is real from what is not. Even using the affirmation “these negative thoughts are not real, they don’t mean anything” can stop you from being affected by the negative thoughts.
Why learning objective thinking skills is important:
When a depressed person get treated for the brain chemical issue that’s causing a depressed mood, one of the best things they can do is learn positive thinking skills. These skills are not commonly taught in formal education, so most people never learn how to deal with challenging situations in proactive ways.
A popular treatment used by psychologists and therapists today is called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). A key tenet of CBT teaches patients that thoughts are made up of two components. Reality: What actually happened. And unreality: what we think about what happened. The latter is generated by our beliefs and what we learned in the past. Because of this thoughts can become “warped” so that you start to believe things that aren’t true.
An easy way to learn to look at situations clearly is to separate facts from feelings in any complex situations you are dealing with. Here’s an example.
A young boy gets attacked and bitten by the neighbor’s dog, name Duke. Each time thereafter when he sees a dog his thoughts are: “I need to stay away from that dog. It might bite me”. His way of protecting himself from dogs is to avoid them. Overtime, the more dogs he avoids, the more he becomes afraid and reinforces the thought “dogs are dangerous”.
If he were to separate the facts here’s what it would look like:
- When I was young, I was bitten by the neighbor’s dog.
- The neighbor never trained the dog, so the dog likely did not learn good behaviors
- The neighbors did not take safe measures to tie up their dog
- There are many dogs in the world. Different sizes and types. Some are well trained and some aren’t
Based on the facts the thought “dogs are dangerous” makes no sense in reality. The truth is one dog was dangerous: the neighbor’s dog Duke. So other dogs may be very kind and loving. Going through that thought process would allow the boy in the example to eventually learn to enjoy dogs.
When you learn to think objectively what actually happens is neither negative or positive. There is what is, in reality, and what you choose to belief about it. So, if you learn to think positively about a situation you can learn to take proactive behaviors that will help you build a better life.