Depressive Thoughts – Why They Are So Enduring

Depressive Thoughts - Why They Are So Enduring

One of the worst things about depression is the intrusive, depressive thoughts that stay around like they have nowhere else to be. The are persuasive and powerful and they pollute the filter through which the rest of the world is experienced. 

A new study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders has shown that the tendency of depressive thoughts to play over and over, leaves little room for any positive thoughts or memories. This affects memory and makes way for depressive thoughts to expand and tighten their grip. The findings are important for shining further light on the relationship between depression and memory, as well as the progression of depression over time.

 ‘We have known that negative thoughts tend to last longer for those with depression. However, this study is unique in showing that, these thoughts, triggered from stimuli in the environment, can persist to the point that they hinder a depressed person’s ability to keep their train of thought.’ Bart Rypma, PhD, Center for BrainHealth principal investigator.

The Research. What they did.

The study involved 75 participants. 30 of those participants had depressive symptoms and 45 of them did not. Each participant was asked to respond to a sentence that was built around a depressive thought or neutral information. The depressive sentences included, ‘I am sad’, or ‘People don’t like me’. Once participants had responded to the sentence, they were asked to remember a series of numbers.

What they found. 

The negative sentences influenced the amount that people with depression could remember. When people with depression were given the negative thought first, they remembered one-third less number strings than people without depressive symptoms. Their performance in the memory task improved when they were exposed to the numbers before the depressive message.  

Why depressive thoughts are so enduring.

This finding helps to make sense of a few things. We know that depression swipes at a person’s ability to concentrate or remember things in their day to day lives and this research offers an explanation as to why.

There is a limit to what we can hold in memory at any given point in time. When this space is occupied by persistent, intrusive depressive thoughts, there is little room for very much else. When there is no space for positive thoughts, the depressive thoughts that have already taken up precious mental real estate are able to flourish. As a result, memory, concentration, or the capacity to think more positive thoughts is compromised.

 ‘The fact that depressive thoughts do not seem to go away once they enter memory certainly explains why depressed individuals have difficulty concentrating or remembering things in their daily lives. This preoccupation of memory by depressive thoughts might also explain why more positive thoughts are often absent in depression; there simply is not enough space for them.’ – Lead author, Nick Hubbard, doctoral  candidate at the Center for BrainHealth.

With a vast amount of mental resources being recruited by depressive thoughts, there is a diminished capacity to make way for positive thoughts. Heads are fertile ground for thinking and when the balance of negative thoughts and positive thoughts is out, the negative ones will take over. The positive thoughts will become less, the depressive thoughts will take over.

The finding that depressive thoughts linger in memory and interrupt future thoughts and memories might be a vital clue to understanding how depression maintains over the course of a person’s life. When there is limited room available, and limited opportunity for nourishing thoughts to occupy the space that’s there, pulling out of a depressive cycle will be difficult.

Depression is not all about negative thoughts. Negative thinking is a symptom of depression, and it may help to maintain the symptoms, but we are far from understanding their role in contributing to the initial symptoms. Although there we are moving closer to an understanding of depression, we still don’t understand what makes a mind vulnerable to these depressive thoughts in the first place. What we do know is that once they find their way in, they will thrive.

Depression is a debilitating illness and there is no easy fix. The more we can understand about it, the more targeted the push against it can be. Relief from the symptoms will come in different ways for different people. 

The authors highlight the benefits of mindfulness in empowering people with depression to recognise and influence the content of their depressive thoughts. Mindfulness has been shown to be as effective as anti-depressants for many people in the prevention of relapse, and this research starts to explain why. 

Negative thoughts often begin automatically and persist automatically. They don’t need very much fuel at all to flourish. Mindfulness shines the light on them and brings them into the open. This will start to weaken their stronghold, either by diluting their concentration with positive thoughts, or by decreasing their direct impact. 

13 Comments

Sudhama

Karen, I get that negative thoughts take over the space that positive thoughts can occupy … they ‘pre-occupy’ I suppose and maybe that’s what the term ‘preoccupation’ actually means. But the article/research didn’t really explain WHY this happens … is it because negative thoughts are more emotionally weighted and therefore take up more resources?
I am also a ‘depression explorer’ (I refuse to use the term ‘sufferer’) since late teens. And there are parts to it i love – the sensitivity, the empathy, the funky ability to think outside the box and the continual wondering of what is Life all about has lead to some amazing realizations. But it can also be very dangerous and debilitating
Perhaps I’m lucky now that I have not only a belief, but a ‘knowing’ of a Higher power/Source/Sacred Creator, so now not only do I ‘push my negative thoughts away’, but I actually offer them up as an energy form to the Universe to be transmuted (and after all, they ARE only energy). The feeling that these thoughts can be given away as gifts is very empowering

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Hey Sigmund

Sudhama we’re not sure why this happens, we just know that it happens. Depressive thoughts are clearly a symptom of depression, but whether they contribute to the cause or whether they are a result is still unclear. They certainly have a role in maintaining depression, but there is a lot of research at the moment that depression is a systemic disorder and involves the entire body, not just the mind. There is also a lot of research that is suggesting that it may be related to some sort of inflammation. Here is an article that explains the research https://www.heysigmund.com/new-research-will-change-way-think-depression/. What causes the inflammation is also unclear. Is it a virus? Stress? Something toxic in the environment? Something related to the immune system? The gut? Something else altogether? There are still a lot of unanswered questions in relation to depression, but there is also a lot of research happening in the area that is working on answering those questions. It is great that you have found a way to deal with your symptoms. Thank you for sharing your story.

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Stan G

Thank you for this article which shines a light on why I struggle so much with my memory at the moment and why my concentration is so poor. Persistent depressive thoughts leave so little room for positive thinking that they take up most of my energy too. It’s such a huge effort to do anything new or even to push myself to do daily tasks. I could be in the middle of a conversation and the slightest distraction can make me lose my track entirely and trying to remember even simple words can often make me believe I have Alzheimer’s.

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LLP

I’m right where Stan is – I’ve had depression since I was a teenager. I work on trying to be positive and I’m pretty mindful of my thoughts, but lately I haven’t been very happy and I can feel the negative thoughts pushing the positive thoughts away. My memory right now is non-existent. My dad has Alzheimer’s and I feel like I do too. I’m going to read the article you sent to Stan. Thanks.

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Hilary

This is correct in every way. I’ve had horrendous bouts of depression forever but I started following Inner Space for their talks, their meditations etc. Brilliant. The positivity of thought squeezes out the negs. I listen to my thoughts and shove neg ones away. The dominance of negativity has bothered me for a long time. Why do they persist so and all that has been said. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist a horrible neg or worse., a whole pile of them pushing in at once, especially if tired, hungry, pressured and then eek, I’ve jumped on the emotions connected to the negs. Ok now I’m teaching myself to say ‘don’t panic but get off this train. Breathe. Calm down. Talk in a meditation’. I do it my way. Thank you InnerSpace & heysigmund for all the help. This is a previously suicidal person who has turned it around!

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Hey Sigmund

Hillary I love hearing that you have turned things around the way you have. Thank you for sharing your story. It will give hope to many people.

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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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