Depression Cycle


Throughout my life I have had many ups and downs as most of us have.  When it comes to the downs we can often feel low and sometimes depressed. In the case of bereavement depression is one of the stages we have to go through to come to terms with our loss. The problem comes when we become stuck or unable to come through the other side of the feelings and thinking we inevitably have when in a depressed state.

If we become stuck in this state then we get into a ‘cycle of depression’ that can be difficult to break free of.  The latest studies have shown that depression is not a disease. The physical symptoms are just that, symptoms, and not causes. Being depressed can feel like a physical disorder because you often feel exhausted, experience pain or have changes in appetite. To understand depression we need look at how the exhaustion and the physical effects of depression are caused by the link between emotionally arousing thoughts, dreaming and exhaustion.

If you are, or have been depressed, you may have noticed that your mind gets fixed on negative issues, or worry during those periods. Typically, these thoughts are emotionally-arousing as they are carried out using ‘All or Nothing thinking’ and a negative bias. That is, you have a thought and you feel unpleasant after it – anxious, angry or helpless. The thought creates the emotional reaction (usually anxiety or anger) and that’s it.  What this does is leave an uncompleted ‘loop’ in the brain. Normally, the emotion would be ‘played through’ by action being taken. For example: You think you are threatened you feel anxious, then run away. The cycle has been completed.

When these emotionally arousing thoughts remain incomplete at the onset of sleep then the brain needs to ‘do something’ with the emotional ‘loops’ that have been started.  The brain create scenarios that allow those loops to complete, dreams, dream acts out a situation that will allow the emotional loop to be completed and therefore ‘flushed’ from the brain. In other words, an imaginary experience whose pattern resembles the ‘real life’ one enough to create the same emotional reaction. Normally, this does its job, and everything stays in balance. However, because you do so much more worrying or stress full thinking, when depressed, the brain has to increase the amount of dreaming you do. And before long you are:

  • Spending too much time in dream sleep and missing out on physically-rejuvenating Slow Wave Sleep.
  • Depleting your hormonal system with extended night-time emotional arousal.
  • Exhausting your ‘orientation response’ – a crucial brain activity that allows you to change your focus of attention and so motivate yourself. It is also a key part of concentration.

As far as much of your brain is concerned, your dream is real. So adrenaline and other stress hormones in your system will be active in the body.  This is a double edged sword, because over-dreaming, as well as using up these hormones and energy, is actually making it harder for the body to make more. As you try to flush out the incomplete emotions, you spend more time in REM sleep, and therefore less time in deep sleep, when your body should be recuperating in preparation for producing these hormones for the next day.

Because of the increased tiredness then you increase your all or nothing thinking or depressive thinking style which will tend to cause more negative emotional arousal, and therefore more dreaming. most events are not ‘completely disastrous’ or ‘absolutely wonderful’ but somewhere in between, depression makes people think in absolutes this thought pattern that allows us to generate a “flight or fight” response to danger because all or nothing thinking is emotionally arousing, it causes over-dreaming and maintains depression.  This extra dreaming is to try to ‘clear the brain’ for the next day, but because our negative arousals are excessive when depressed, our natural rhythms find it hard to cope with this “over-dreaming” and then we are in the cycle of depression.

depression cycle

Getting Help with Depression

Antidepressants are shown to be effective in controlling depression in around one third of cases with partial success in another third, but are ineffective in the remaining third.

But where drugs as a treatment for depression really fall down is on the prevention of relapse.  Other, alternative treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy, have been shown to have 70% better success rate at beating depression for good. In other words, they have been shown to prevent relapse in 70% more cases than drugs. But this is obvious! Unless, of course, you consider the cause of depression to be a chemical imbalance. Which is widely accepted is not in the majority of cases

Help for depression varies wildly in terms of what it considers depression to be, how it treats it and therefore ultimately how effective it is.  The idea that depression can simply be treated as a chemical imbalance is rapidly losing ground. Therefore, the first incredibly important stage of getting help for depression is to understand what depression is.   Effective therapy needs to incorporate everything that works in lifting depression. You may be able to help yourself effectively, although often it is useful to get the help of a professional.