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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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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