Is There a “Formula” for Depression?

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Certain things we do inadvertently can foster a sense of helplessness in us that can eventually lead to depression. Here are four ways to avoid this behavioral “formula” for depression.

Depression is a leading cause of medical disability and affects as many as 1 in 10 adults over their lifetime. For many years now, we’ve known that there’s a significant biochemical component to depression, which is largely why the use of psychotropic drugs to treat depression (and the anxiety that sometimes accompanies depression) has expanded so rapidly. Evidence has been mounting that depression is actually a very complicated illness with many root causes. Evidence has also been accumulating that medications alone may not be as effective as we once thought in treating depression, especially when it comes to the relatively milder forms of the illness. That’s part of the reason other non-medical therapies continue to be an important part of the treatment picture for most forms of depression.

When I was doing clinical case study research in advance of the publication of my first book In Sheep’s Clothing, I stumbled upon an interesting discovery. I observed a common occurrence in the lives of individuals struggling with mild to moderate depression, and this observation led me to speculate about whether there might not be a behavioral “formula” for some of the more frequent types of depression. As I examined case after case of individuals dealing with what appeared to be hopeless and depression fostering circumstances, it appeared as though these folks were experiencing the anger, frustration, and feelings of “helplessness” that typically accompany the fighting of a lost cause. (In many cases, their circumstances included relationships with one of the several disturbed characters I describe in Character Disturbance.) They were struggling to get something or make something happen that they felt powerless to secure. In the process they were becoming increasingly despondent, directing substantial anger against themselves for their apparent impotence. I felt I was onto something.

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The phenomenon I was observing was very compatible with the research on “learned helplessness,” which came out of animal studies conducted by Martin E. P. Seligman and his colleagues and which many felt could be applied to human situations in which a person, despite trying many different ways to change things, had come to believe they simply could not escape their negative circumstances. The stages of grief that often accompanied these feelings of powerlessness and defeat appeared to parallel to a degree some of the stages of grief outlined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. These days, clinicians and researchers talk more readily about “angry depression” as the kind of depression that accompanies chronic frustration and breeds anger that is often expressed outwardly but which can be eventually turned inward. Fighting losing battles does indeed appear to be a major source of the frustration associated with angry depression. But the most important thing I uncovered in my case study research was the reason for that “lost cause” and helpless feeling. What I found was that folks many times inadvertently invested their emotional energy in things they couldn’t possibly have power over. They were focusing on people, places, and things they simply didn’t have the ability to control. And because of this they were feeling angry, frustrated, helpless, powerless, defeated, and ultimately, depressed.

To be clear, there are indeed some depressions that are strictly the result of biochemical imbalances, some of which can arise quite insidiously (e.g., from hormonal changes, trauma, complications of physical disease, etc.). In these cases, while additional therapies can be of value, the most important thing in treatment is to restore normal biochemistry. But there are plenty of times when certain things we do inadvertently can foster a sense of helplessness in us that can eventually lead to some degree of depression. So to avoid succumbing to this behavioral “formula” for depression, it’s important to:

Increase your awareness about where you’re focusing your energies and attention.
Essentially, we can focus on things that are external (i.e. people, places, things) and are truly outside of our purview or we can focus internally — on our thoughts, feelings, and especially our actions, over which we have a a lot more power. Becoming aware of where you’re directing your energies is the first step toward personal empowerment. (See “Empowerment Tools: Invest Your Energy Where You Have Power”.)
Do your best to avoid focusing on things external.
Stop brooding over someone else’s behavior and stop worrying or obsessing about what they may or may not do or say next. Let go of those incessant yearnings for something to happen or for someone to do something that you don’t have the power to effect.
Re-direct your focus and maintain that focus on yourself and what’s going on inside of you.
Take notice of your thoughts. Change any negative thoughts that arise to positive ones. You don’t even have to be truly convicted about this process. Repeatedly changing your negative thoughts to positive ones will eventually lead to some conviction. The main thing is to change your thoughts and to reinforce yourself each time you do so.
Take action.
You alone have power over your behavior. Don’t fret about the outcome (over which you have limited power) or about making the exact right choice (which is often fairly impossible to discern) before you act. Instead, do something — anything to change your circumstances. If what you’ve chosen to do doesn’t seem sufficient, try something else.

Just as there may be a “formula” for depression, there’s also a formula for joy. The secret is investing your energy where you have power. Inside of all of us lies the secret to true empowerment: the ability to change our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. By directing our energies there instead of toward the losing battles that inevitably breed a sense of “helplessness” we can, perhaps, stave off a bout with depression.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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