Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Depression: A Leading Cause & What To Do About It

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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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