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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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