The Depression Switch

It now appears that there is a point at which we might ‘switch’ into or out of depression, according to how we focus our attention.

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The Depression Switch

Depression, which can be thought of as a disorder of mood, is considerably more debilitating than the ‘feeling low’ most of us occasionally experience and can significantly interfere with being able to go about one’s daily life.

In the past, it was thought that depression was more likely to happen in people with a tendency to see themselves, the world and their future from a negative point of view. But studies have shown that this negative perspective may only be present during an episode of depression, so clearly something else is going on.

However, it now appears that there is a point at which we might ‘switch’ into or out of depression, according to how we focus our attention.

Several studies, according to researchers Seagall and Ingram, indicate that the key seems to be how a person reacts to mild everyday moods of feeling low or sad. For some people, these everyday moods reactivate a pattern of negative thinking, which itself then causes the mild low mood to become progressively worse, spiralling down into a state of depression. It’s as if the ordinary low mood throws a switch to move a person from an ordinary thinking pattern to a negative thinking pattern.

Whether this switch happens depends on how people handle a low mood. Professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema found that people who tend to focus their attention inwards on the low mood (thinking about how low they are feeling, or trying to work out why they are feeling this way), may get caught up in this negative spiral. This is called ‘rumination’. In her words, “once you get into it [rumination], it leads a life of its own; it becomes a self perpetuating process…”.

People who focus their energies outwards, on the other hand, such as looking for something positive in the situation or keeping active, tend not to trigger this switch. These are known as distraction techniques.

However, when people use distraction techniques to mask their underlying rumination, this leads only to a temporary respite from rumination, rather than leading them safely out of it. In these circumstances, distraction techniques are unlikely to be effective in lifting depression.

So what helps? A therapy approach that has an attitude of mindfulness at its core is more likely to tackle this effectively, as the one thing that makes the crucial difference seems to be the relationship a person has with their negative thoughts and feelings, rather than what those thoughts and feelings are.

Repeatedly being able to step back from negative thoughts in a particular way (distancing or decentering techniques) seems to be the key to preventing that switch into rumination from being triggered.

Not all therapy approaches recognise this switch or directly address it. However, a mindfulness-based psychotherapy approach does, and so helps a person to directly develop the skills to deal with rumination plus employ distancing techniques.

Jacky Francis Walker

I am an internationally recognised psychotherapist, mindfulness consultant, executive coach, clinical supervisor and trainer. Featured in Psychologies magazine's Coaching Directory, I have been in practice since 1993, working with high achieving professionals and people in creative fields. I offer appointments in London's Harley Street, the City of London and also via video link, so you can get help no matter where in the world you are. My clients are based in such places as the UK, America, Africa and even the Cayman Islands. Clients often self refer. I also receive referrals from other health professionals, such as doctors, cosmetic surgeons, occupational health professionals and dental surgeons. I am also registered with a number of Employee Assistance schemes and health insurance policies which may cover the cost of sessions - details are on my 'background' page on my website. The combination of skills I offer is unique in the UK. As author of The Burnout Bible, I am one of the UK's leading specialists in stress, burn-out and work/life balance. I work from an integrative approach, informed by humanistic and psychodynamic philosophy and mindfulness ways of working, but I draw from other approaches too, such as cognitive behaviour therapy, depending on your needs. I am able to vary my style fro fairly structured to fairly loose, according to your preference. By working collaboratively we can arrive at the most appropriate working style for you, so please do let me know if we need to change anything. I have been working with mindfulness-based approaches since the early 1990s. My MA thesis examined how mindfulness (in the form of the felt sense) could be found within most schools of psychotherapy and distilled key principles for working with mindfulness within a psychotherapeutic approach. In 2014 I took part in an innovative pilot scheme on Mindfulness and Weight Loss. My specialist areas I have a particular interest in working with : stress, burnout and work-life balance (with a special emphasis on the particular needs of high achieving professionals and people in the creative arts) quality of life issues (including mid-life crisis, life goals and spiritual values) the creative process mindfulness personal / professional development