Depression: A Leading Cause & What To Do About It

It’s been said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’, but too much analysis  will bring trouble.

Rumination – thinking about something over and over without reaching a solution – has been well established as a risk factor for depression and relapse into depression.

New research has now uncovered the alarming effects of rumination on the brain.

Rumination hurts a healthy mind in a number of different ways:

  1. It taints what we remember. People who ruminate have a tendency to remember more negative events from the past.
  2. It increases the likelihood that the past and present will be seen through a negative filter. Memories and current events that are ambiguous, neutral or positive will more likely be seen in a negative light, making things seem darker than they really are (or were). 
  3. The future feels more difficult and a sense of hopelessness can take over.
  4. The way people deal with things on a day to day basis can be undermined, hampering the capacity to deal with obstacles.

Rumination causes physical changes in the brain. Scans have revealed a difference in the brain networks of young adults with a history of depression, compared to those who had not previously experienced depression.

‘We wanted to see if the individuals who have had depression during their adolescence were different from their healthy peers,’ explained Rachel Jacobs, Research Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at UIC.


The Study – What They Did

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at neural networks of 53 young adults aged 18-23. Of these, 30 had a history of depression and 23 had not. None of the participants were on medication.

What They Found

In those with a history of depression, many parts of the emotional and cognitive networks in the brain were hyper-connected – or talking to each other too much.

The hyper-connections were related to sustained attention and rumination, two known predictors of relapse.


Important Information for Teens

Though treatments for depression are effective, within two years half of all teenagers diagnosed with depression will relapse. 

Brain networks are nearly mature by adulthood and given the findings of this study, the transition to adulthood may be a critical window for the treatment of depression.

‘If we can help youth learn how to shift out of maladaptive strategies such as rumination, this may protect them from developing chronic depression and help them stay well as adults,’ Jacobs said.

‘We think that depression is a developmental outcome, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that people need to become depressed. If we can provide prevention and treatment to those people that are most at risk, we might be able to prevent depression, reduce the number of depressive episodes, or reduce their severity,’ said Langenecker.

And for Everybody

‘Rumination is not a very healthy way of processing emotion,’ said Scott Langenecker, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at UIC. He continues,

‘Rumination is a risk factor for depression and for reoccurrence of depression if you’ve had it in the past.’

The research has offered new direction in the understanding, early detection and treatment of depression.

A greater understanding of the biology of depression is critical to better predict and treat depression.

 Rumination, or thinking over and over about the negatives of a situation poses an undeniable risk for the development of and relapse into depression. Plenty of previous research lends weight.

In a study of more than 32,000 people, negative life events in childhood or early adulthood certainly created a vulnerability to depression, but the biggest factor in determining whether or not depression eventually took hold was rumination and self-blame for the events.

As explained by researcher, Professor Peter Kinderman, ‘The results suggest that these thinking styles – especially rumination and self-blame – play a very specific role in the development of mental health problems and are not just consequences of those problems.’

This has implications for the way we respond psychologically to the negative things that happen to us, as well as the way we support those close to us who are ‘doing it tough’.


 Rumination: How to Stop it

  1. Exercise

    Physical activity interrupts negative thinking and reframes the way you look at things. This has been proven over and over and then a bit more.

  1. Mindfulness 

    Interrupting negative thinking is instrumental in recovering from, or steering away from, depression.

    Mindfulness is one way to achieve this.

    Mindfulness involves being nonjudgementally aware of your thoughts in order to recognise and steer away from habitual, automatic psychological and physiological reactions to events.

    We humans are particularly skilled at letting our minds run on auto. The more negative thinking can be interrupted, the less influence that negative thinking will have on feelings and behaviour. 

    To practice mindfulness, just focus on what you are sensing right now (as opposed to thinking about the past or the future). Paying attention to what you hear, feel, smell, see and taste. What do you feel against your skin? What about beneath it? Feel your heartbeat. Listen to your breathing. Feel the air move in. Then out. What about the sounds around you? Don’t try to figure anything out. Just stay with the experience. If your mind tries to wander (and trust me – if this is new for you, wander it will) just come back to what you are experiencing through your senses. Mindfulness is about being present in the now. It’s important because it’s the only place we have any power. Many great leaders practice mindfulness and it’s picking up pace in the corporate world. It’s an ancient art and something doesn’t stick around for that long unless there’s something in it. This works. I promise. 

  2. Find the Opportunity

    Sometimes when you’re down it’s because there’s something you’re meant to find there. Look for the lesson – the learning that will stop whatever happened happening again. And be kind to yourself. Whether we like it or not, falling down is part of being human – wish it wasn’t, but it is. When things aren’t as you planned, it’s an opportunity to try something different, learn something new, take a different door, all of which can mark the beginning of something unexpected that one day you’ll be grateful for. Make the most of it. 

  3. Worst case scenario

    This may sound counter-intuitive but stay with me … Think about the worst case scenario and ask yourself if you can handle it. This takes the steam out of the original thought that’s made itself at home in your head. Humans are resilient creatures and it’s likely that although the worst case scenario won’t have you pulling your ‘bring it on then,’ face, whatever it is you’ll be able to handle it. Few things are fatal

  4. Pencil in a worry break 

    Kinda like a date. But nowhere near the fun. Set aside a period of time each day, say 20 minutes, where you can go hard with your worrying. Worry it up like crazy. Worry about everything that’s been hassling you for attention. Then, at the end of your scheduled break – stop. When something starts clanging around the inside of your skull, remind yourself that you’ve made time later to deal with whatever it it. This works. Just try it.

One of the most important parts of any relationship is being there during the bad times. (Having said that, the people who are there to celebrate our wins genuinely, without resentment, indifference or jealousy are also keepers.)


If Someone You Care About is Ruminating

Listening while they talk is a critical part of healing, but there comes a point when talking over and over about the same things negative parts of a problem stops being helpful and keeps the person ‘stuck’. The support people want isn’t necessarily the support they need.

When the time is right (and this will never come with a big bold sign in easy-to-read font) steering the discussion towards a resolution or acceptance or in any other direction than along the muddy banks will help to facilitate a ‘moving on’. This doesn’t mean ignoring the bad or insisting that people ‘get over it’, but rather finding a different way to talk about the issue.

Of course, this has to be done with grace and tenderness so as to avoid you being unceremoniously dumped outside the loop upon a pile of others who came before you who just ‘didn’t get it’.

There is a difference between supporting the person and supporting the pathology. You’ll recognise the line because it’s like so many others in psychology – very grey, very blurry, with a tendency to shift or disappear the closer you get.

As always though, anything said with love and generous intent and which is motivated by the right reasons, will rarely be the wrong thing to say.

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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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