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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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