Loss, disappointment and other difficulties are, unfortunately, a part of life; we are all likely to feel sad at various points in our lives.
Sadness is a core emotion and a normal part of the human experience. Most of the time after a disappointing event or a loss, sadness passes after a couple of days. Feeling sad occasionally is not a problem, however if it lasts longer than a few days at a time, or occurs frequently, it may be good to learn some strategies to keep it check.
Sadness or Depression?
Depression is different to sadness, in that depression is characterised by persistent low mood for weeks, months and even years in some cases. Depression interferes with the individual’s ability to experience pleasure, interact with other people or function in their usual way.
If you have had experience with depression or know someone who has, you are not alone. It is estimated that six percent of Australians suffer a depressive episode each year, and 15 to 20 per cent will experience at least one episode of depression at some stage in their lives.
The good news is that depression usually responds well to treatment. Depression can pass on its own without intervention, but treatment from a qualified mental health professional can speed up recovery by months or years, and may help to prevent future relapse.
The Effects of Depression or “Why do I feel so Bad?”
Global Pessimism – When depression has been triggered, our cognitions (thoughts) change. Our mind becomes preoccupied with negative thoughts and everything feels bad and pointless. It becomes very difficult to recall positive events from our past, and it becomes impossible to believe we will ever feel good again. Problems can seem overwhelming, giving a sense of not even knowing where to start, and we feel helpless.
Rumination – When we are depressed, we ruminate. Rumination is having repetitive thoughts that focus on our problems, analyse the details of past mistakes, speculate on possible reasons for things and possible past and future consequences (“Why did this happen?”, “If only I’d…..”, “It’s my fault”, “It’s never going to get better”, etc). Rumination is unhelpful because it keeps us stuck in self-defeating thoughts and behaviours, contributing to the downward spiral of depression.
The Depression Spiral – Due to the nature of the symptoms of depression, once we start to become depressed, it is very easy for that depression to worsen quite quickly. The negative cognitions and loss of motivation lead us to withdraw and reduce activity. Inactivity makes us feel bad, and spending too much time alone gives us a lot of time to ruminate with these thoughts, leading to further despondency. This leads to further withdrawal, further rumination, and further reduction in mood and so on. This is how depressive episodes are perpetuated, and how something that starts as low mood can spiral into more severe depression.
The Cognitive Triad – Depression seems to cause people to take a negative view across the three areas of: themselves (eg “I am no good”); the world (eg “People are uncaring”) and the future (eg “It will be this way forever”). These distorted cognitions can give rise to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness.
Cognitive Strategies for Depression
Negative thoughts and ruminations are important perpetuating factors in the maintenance of depression, so strategies that target these can assist in recovering from depression. These strategies include:
Labelling the Faulty Thinking – By keeping track of the negative thoughts that occur in our minds, we can identify any faulty thinking. By labelling the thought, it can give us some distance from it and reinforce the idea that the thought is not the “truth”. For example, the thinking error of “catastrophizing” relates to assuming the very worst will happen; by labelling the thought as catastrophizing, it is easier for us to see that the worst case scenario is not a forgone conclusion.
Disputing Self-Critical Thoughts – By becoming aware of the thoughts where we are being harsh on ourselves and “beating ourselves up”, we can dispute them and thus take the emotional power out of them. For example:
- Self-critical thought: “This is my own fault – I’m a weak person for becoming depressed.”
- Reasonable thought: “Depression affects one in six people at some stage in their lives. It is not a measure of character or personal worth. It affects people from all walks of life.”
Behavioural Strategies for Depression
The symptoms of depression lead us to withdraw from events we usually find pleasurable and become inactive. Inactivity itself can physiologically lower our mood and withdrawing from activities prevents us from having the experience of doing something enjoyable, again contributing to our feelings of depression.
Behavioural treatment for depression starts simply with trying to link the individual back with activities previously enjoyed. Behaviours such as physical exercise, listening to music and spending time with friends can have direct mood enhancing effects, both physiologically and emotionally. Other benefits include gaining a sense of achievement, providing evidence to challenge our negative thoughts, and disrupting negative ruminations.
Recovering from Depression: the Evidence
There is a wealth of research evidence collected over many years to support the benefits of these interventions in the treatment of depression. However, due to the nature of the symptoms of depression it can be hard to implement these strategies on your own, thus the support of a qualified mental health professional can assist a faster recovery.
Author: Greta Neilsen, BA (Hons), M Psych (Clin), Grad Dip Soc Sc (Psych), MAPS.
Loganholme Psychologist Greta Neilsen has a wealth of experience in the treatment of depression and anxiety in adults of all ages, and endeavours to provide her clients with a safe space to understand the challenges they face, as they develop ways to overcome their difficulties.
To make an appointment with Loganholme Psychologist Greta Neilsen, please call (07) 3067 9129 or you can book online today.
- Carr, A., & McNulty, M. (2006). The handbook of adult clinical psychology – An evidence based approach. Routledge: New York.
- Edelman, S. (2013). Change your thinking. Harper Collins: Sydney.