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 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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