Monday, May 19, 2014


“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.” - William James,

In 1965, Martin Seligman and his colleagues were conducting an experiment that involved giving dogs electric shocks, because this is what scientists did before the idea of humane treatment of animals came into vogue. They split the dogs into two groups. One group would be able to press a panel to stop the electric shock, and one group would be kept in a harness and unable to do anything to prevent the electric shock.

They then placed the dogs within an area separated from another area by a low fence. On the side of the fence which the dogs were placed on, the floor contained an electric charge, while the other side of the fence did not. The fence was low enough that the dogs could easily jump over it to the shockless floor. 

The dogs which had been able to stop the electric shock quickly jumped over the fence to the other side, while the dogs which had been unable to stop the electric shock simply lied down and did not attempt to escape the shock. Because they could not escape the pain before, the dogs did not think they could escape it then, and so they didn't even try. 

Martin Seligman coined this phenomenon "Learned Helplessness". Learned helplessness is the idea that when we are unable to improve our well-being in some areas, we grow to believe that we cannot improve our well-being in others. To some degree it's a logical response; we can't escape this pain, therefore we can't escape other forms of pain.

Depression is, in part, a habit.

Which is not to say it's not other things as well. Depression is an incredibly complex condition with poorly defined boundaries. The exact combination of factors which lead into depression--be they habitual, neurochemical, psychological, philosophical, spiritual, or otherwise--vary from person to person. Today, however, I will focus primarily on the habitual side of depression.

Our lives are made up of habits. Every thought, every feeling, every action done reinforces itself, so that it is easier to do the next time. This can be used to good extent, obviously. When we begin driving, we spend a lot of time looking at the road, and feeling every turn and sensation, which ironically makes us less likely to notice obstacles on the road, because we're overloaded with information. Yet after enough practice, the basic components of driving become so easy to do we hardly think of them, and our mind is free to focus on the road in front of us (whether we actually do that is another story).

At the same time, however, it can similarly be used to bad effect. When we think certain negative thoughts, for example, it becomes easier to think those thoughts in the future, and harder to argue against them. Over time, the thoughts can come so easily that it's as if we don't think them at all, the thoughts are just there. And when we don't have the resources to try and argue against them, the thoughts seem perfectly reasonable, for we don't have any alternative or them.

What Martin Seligman showed with the experiment, among other things, was how habitual ways of thinking in the past inform our present habits. Many of us have had occurrences in the past where we were hurting and couldn't stop from hurting. For some people this may have had to do with upbringing. For others it's related to trauma. For others it was simply the depression. Regardless of the cause, we hurt, and we could not stop it. We felt powerless.

Over time, we grow used to that feeling of powerlessness. It sinks into our minds and changes the way we think of things. The sense of powerlessness moves from its point of origin to other areas as well, into the parts of our lives that have nothing to do with the hurt. We feel not only powerless in that one place, but in other places, like with keeping friendships, holding down jobs, or working for our lives to improve. Even when removed from the hurtful environment, those habits stay with us as a remnant

It's this concept of habit that is related to the idea of the "hedonic treadmill", or happiness set-point. The idea is that though certain life events may temporarily change our feelings, we generally return to a certain state of happiness over time.  However, this set point can change. Richard Davidson, for example, has argued that, because of the neuroplastic nature of the brain, happiness can be cultivated just as any other habit can, such as through counseling, physical exercise, and meditation. Research has shown that engaging in small but consistent activities such as religious practice and exercise can improve one's overall levels of happiness. Martin Seligman, who you may remember as the dog-electrifier from earlier in this post, is one of the leaders of the positive psychology movement, which asserts the capacity for individuals to change their ways of thinking,  and has written numerous books on the subject.

What this all means is that our happiness, and by extension our depression, need not be set in stone. We may not be able to control all factors which contribute to our depression, but we can control how we think and what we do, and their effects on our overall well being cannot be understated.

Which then leads to how to approach it.

The above image is called the Cognitive-Behavioral Triangle, which is the foundation used in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). What the triangle shows is that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interrelated, with each informing the others. If we feel a certain way, for example, we may think a certain way. If we think a certain way, we may behave a certain way. And if we behave a certain way, we may feel a certain way. And so on.

CBT is closely related with the idea of forming habits and breaking them. By feeling a certain way long enough, we reinforce the thoughts that initially led us to those feelings, and in turn reinforce the behaviors that also stem from those feelings, and so on. This applies to both helpful and unhelpful points. What's important is that we can interrupt the unhelpful cycles of thought by replacing some unhelpful thing within the triangle with a more helpful thing.

Suppose I wake up feeling depressed. I don't have any particular reason for why I feel depressed, I just do. But while I'm depressed, certain thoughts are easier to think, namely negative or pessimistic thoughts. "This day is going to suck" or "I won't be able to get anything done today". By thinking those thoughts, I in turn reinforce the sense of unhappiness. Which reinforces the negative thoughts.

On the other hand, suppose I wake up feeling depressed, but rather than allowing those negative thoughts to come unresisted, I challenge them. I may not be able to stop the "this day is going to suck" thought, but I can respond to it with "I don't know how the day will turn out but I can still do my best in my current situation, which can improve my chances of getting a possible outcome." Wordy, perhaps, but it's challenged my first thought with a more hopeful, reasoned thought.

Similarly, suppose I'm applying for a job. My first thought may be "There's no point in doing this, I'm not going to get the job anyway", and I may be inclined to not write my resume.  But a thought to respond to that might be "I may not get the job, but I definitely won't get the job if I don't try." And then push myself to write the resume and submit it. I may still not get the job, but I've provided an alternative to think instead of the pessimistic thought I originally had.

That's just two examples, and I am far from an exhaustive reference on this subject. There are books upon books on CBT, and many therapists are specially trained in it. Worksheets and other resources are available online. And of course, this is not the only method of therapy or habit-breaking available.

But what's perhaps most important to note is that this method and any other method cannot be done inconsistently. It must be performed constantly and doggedly. Habits are tough to break, and it'll be all the harder to break a habit if it's not tackled with enough energy and commitment. It'll require a lot of hard work, and at times it will be a real pain. But the outcome can be very, very positive. We can, if not rid ourselves of depression, then improve how we respond to it. We can make our lives better, not by changing the world around us, but by changing ourselves. We can learn to approach the world in a different way, a way that is affirming and empowering to us.


The Depression Habit Spiral

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. (I feel like i haven't been reading this blog enough. I need to catch up on it.)