Friday, 4 October 2013

Working with Depression

Depression can be so severe that it can undermine all pleasure in life,and involve feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness and despair. In extreme cases, it can lead to attempts at suicide, some of which succeed.

For some time, there has been a focus upon pharmaceutical approaches but, increasingly, the research on which these are based has been called into question. Although tablets help some people, I believe that psychological ways of accounting for, and treating, depression are better at getting at the root of the problem.

What is depression? As so often, its name gives an important clue; to 'depress' is to push down. This suggests that depression is less an emotion in its own right as a low mood resulting from the pushing down of another emotion-say, anger or guilt. Moreover, depression can be the consequence of being 'pushed down' as a person. For example, criticism by a spouse can be a potent cause of depression. In many cases, the pushing down occurred in childhood as a response to a critical and guilt-inducing parent. In adulthood, a client may push himself or herself down by having a highly critical dialogue inside his or her head. Quite a few people call themselves names, behaving towards themselves like a spiteful child in a playground.

This same state, a state of repression, can also result from child sexual abuse, where a real feeling of anger might be repressed, leaving an overwhelming sense of shame. Repression can also become established after the death of a parent in childhood.

Crucially, then, depression is related to the way in which we think about ourselves, others and the world. People who think they are worthless are not likely to be cheerful. Psychologists believe that our thoughts about ourselves, others and the world are not just isolated thoughts but are instead organised into reasonably coherent systems. These are sometimes called 'schemata' or 'schemas'. These schemata are mood-dependent. (We all know how our thoughts change when the sun comes out.)  Thus, we may have one way of thinking about ourselves, others and the world when we are at our happiest and another when we are depressed. I find it helpful to imagine a department store; on each level, we can access different goods. Our thoughts are similar, with different ways of thinking that we draw upon, according to which 'floor' our moods are on.

When we feel low, we may engage the kind of schema which is inherently depressing. The sort of schemas which have the strongest tendency to lead to depression involve our sense of our core selves. If we believe we are intrinsically powerless, essentially worthless, fundamentally weak and feeble, or we deserve to feel permanently ashamed, we are almost certainly going to suffer from deep depression.

These negative ways of thinking may be triggered by particular events, especially if these are viewed in particular ways. The break-up of a relationship can lead to a sense of failure which could trigger a self-destructive schema; as Cognitive therapists point out, this is especially likely in the presence of modes of thinking which intensify the negative emotions. For example, Cognitive therapists employ the idea of 'catastrophising', by which they mean a tendency to select the most disastrous possible outcome of a given situation, and then think about it as the most likely one. For example, if the end of a relationship leads to the conclusion 'I will never be able to make a successful relationship', then this is more likely to lead to depression than the thought 'I will see what I can learn from this experience so my relationships work better in the future.' You can see that the former position is also far more likely to bring into play a schema based around the idea of powerlessness.

It is important, too, to pay attention to experiences in early life which can also have a bearing upon later     emotional states. There is reason to believe that people tend to set their happiness levels in childhood, and have a tendency to maintain them. Events such as divorce, the death of a parent, persistent bullying and emotional, physical and sexual abuse can all have effects which continue to make their presence felt even decades later.

This takes us to the beauty and flexibility of the psychotherapeutic approach to depression. It engages with the real and individual experiences of each person. One common factor is the therapeutic relationship which is, according to research, the main curative factor in psychotherapy, after the level of the client's motivation. You can see that an atmosphere of warmth, empathy, and non-judgementalism directly address some of the issues already mentioned. The therapeutic relationship is also important as, within it, a sense of trust can arise which can facilitate a client in talking about painful feelings and experiences and so can enable them to be thought about clearly and in new ways. Even the act itself of admitting to feelings of embarrassment and shame can help them to diminish. All good therapy is a species of cognitive therapy.

It is possible to use ideas from cognitive therapy to look at some of the modes of thinking which can lead to depression and can trigger negative schemas. Catastrophising-an ugly coinage but graphic-has already been mentioned. Another is 'thinking in extremes'- e.g. If my essay isn't brilliant, it (and I) are hopeless. Another is to view life selectively, emphasising the negative and minimising the positive. A further one is to personalise, so that you obsess over the reactions of others which might have occurred entirely through the internal processes of another person. In Cognitive therapy, the aim is to replace these cognitions with modes of thinking which promote your interests more successfully. In the Humanist Integrative approach in which I believe, my intention would generally be to enable you to work out your own ways of thinking, so that you feel in charge of your own therapy. At the same time, I cannot, and should not, promise that therapy will be without challenge. We all have our blind spots, and, although it is rarely comfortable to have attention drawn to them, if done sparingly and helpfully, this can be therapeutic. After all, it is a sign of openness to give consideration to the issues which we find hardest to contemplate.

In all this, there is often an issue of regarding oneself with a lack of compassion. The promotion of compassion towards oneself, learning to forgive oneself for one's errors and failures, and accepting oneself as a very valuable, if fallible, human being, plays a vital part in overcoming depression.

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