When you’re feeling sad and hopeless you tend to see things through the filter of your negative thoughts and feelings. You may think that once this depression lifts you will finally be able to live. However, in the throes of despair you can easily lose contact with what you love and value the most. You may feel frustrated because you can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong and you’re unable to “think” your way through your problems. Time and again you ruminate about the past and imagine what you will do in the future. Often times this leads to blaming yourself and feeling shame about your inability to just “get over it”. The notion of “getting over it” is worsened in societies, cultures and families who push competition at all costs. This push to be competitive often minimizes feelings of hurt and pain and steam rolls self-compassion. When depressed you often end up getting caught in a loop where thoughts and feelings feed on each other. Depression is usually comprised of a constellation of biopsychosocial issues. These destructive thoughts may also cause reactions in the body. If you ruminate about how awful you are, your body is flooded with stress hormones, which in turn cause further suffering and rumination. In addition, these destructive practices and repetitive loops put us in a state of constant stress which keeps our cortisol levels elevated, further contributing to depression.
There are studies suggesting that the size of the hippocampus is greatly reduced in depressed individuals. However, those who recover from depression seem to have the ability to increase the size of their hippocampus back to within normal range. The amygdala is thought to be linked to depression in the way that it responds to both emotional stress and rewards. In depressed people, the amygdala may be overactive when introduced to negative events and underactive when introduced to positive events. The amygdala is responsible for secreting stress hormones. There are several chemical activity differences happening in the brain related to stress and soothing hormones. Often we find increased cortisol (stress hormones) and abnormal levels of oxytocin, serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. There are also genetic issues which may predispose someone to depression. More recently, ideas involving neuroplasticity indicate that information flow changes between neurons based on experiences. If we hang on to or practice unhealthy responses to our negative experiences we will affect the flow of information. Conversely, if we reinforce positive experiences, that flow of information reverses. It is unclear within these biological processes if they (chemistry, genetics and structures of the brain) are the causes or effects of depression. It is important to not lose sight of the fact that whether they are causes or effects we have the ability to work with and often times change whatever we have going on. There are also social factors which contribute to depression such as childhood abuse, stressful events and limited social support during stressful circumstances. All or some of these things can converge and loop around us to contribute to feelings of hopelessness and loss of enjoyment. Yet, there is much hope in all of this confusing milieu and this is where therapy comes into play.
My job as a therapist is to help clients increase awareness and build compassion. Awareness is about stepping back and looking at what is going on within and around yourself. It may involve asking yourself a question such as “where am I in this moment?” or simply learning to observe yourself in a neutral or compassionate way. Not only will this help you step back and look at yourself, it will help you move back into the problematic feelings, emotions or thoughts. Often time’s things begin to shift when we’ve had an opportunity to step back for a moment. Guiding you to move back and forth between experiencing and observing or holding experiencing and observing at the same time, may help to alleviate and open up places that you feel stuck in. Another approach may be to visualize an admired mentor of compassion to temporarily borrow or integrate their nervous system in order to help stimulate your own resources. Using these approaches and others may help the answers come from within in new and sometimes startling ways. All of this works best when you are able to step into these feelings and emotions with compassion, which is the ability to have warm and nurturing feelings towards yourself.
I see myself as assisting in the process of viewing yourself and your circumstances with greater flexibility and compassion. At first, it may be difficult to feel self-compassion; many of us have negative associations around compassion that may not fall in line with our self-talk to “just get over it”. These approaches may help reduce stress hormones and increase the levels of the more nurturing and balancing hormones, which in turn will help re-direct and increase the flow of information in the brain in more positive directions. Just as it took time to build these negative associations, it will take time to rewire our brains and hearts to head in new positive directions.