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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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