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Falling in the dirt...again: The Depressive Spiral and the Way Out

Posted Aug 26 2008 4:29pm
If you've experienced depression throughout your life, then know what the depressive spiral feels like. There something stressful that happens that sends you down, seemingly without being able to stop the descent. For instance, say you get upbraided by your boss for a small mistake. You initially feel anger, "This is so unfair!" Then you feel powerless, "But what can I do?" The physical deadening sensations creep in, and you think, "Oh, no, here it is again." The sense of powerlessness deepens, and then you get angry: "Why can't I control this? I hate that I can't do anything about this." The deadening gets even stronger, and you react more, to the original stimulus, plus the anger, plus the sensations, plus the self-criticism...

If there isn't something that you do or that happens to anchor you, you'll sink down to a collapsed place, like a whirl pool at the bottom of a funnel. Then when you make our way back up to the surface, there's an added layer of fear about getting caught in that cycle again, often leading to avoidant behavior (maybe trying to be perfect at work, always please your boss, etc.).

This is what happens if the process has no break.

As kids, we used to run around the edges of the Doughboy swimming pool, causing a whirlpool to form that got stronger the harder we pushed into the current. However, when we stopped and ran in the opposite direction, the current would lessen and then break up. In the same vein, the energy of depression can be disrupted; one can learn to both break up the spiraling, as well as to drain off the energy (we never tried to punch a whole in the pool wall, but that would have also worked to stop the spiraling).

The breaking up of the spiral requires first noticing when you're actually beginning to spiral, and developing a faith that you can do something about it. These are the "coping skills," or management strategies of living with depression. You might, for instance, notice yourself getting panicky about the work situation, but instead of believing the voice of that panic ("I'm powerless and in danger of losing my job...but I have to do something!"), you slow down and question it (see this post for a method to do this). This is a running against the current in order not to feed it's energy. If you, without reflection, accept that it's indeed a right time to panic, then you are swimming with the depression current and making it stronger.

This slowing down and paying attention is a big strategy in not feeding your energy into the depression, regardless of what you do when you slow down (challenging your thoughts, getting exercise, getting support from a friend, etc.).

So: these coping skills are the "doing," active part of disrupting the spiral, while mindfulness practice is the "being" strategy that leads to the dissipation of the depression ("mindfulness" being the intentional, non-judgemental observation of the present experience). Mindfulness practice is climbing out of the pool altogether and letting the current gently fade out, because depression needs to be fed to continue. Like anything else that goes unfed, it eventually dissipates all by itself.

As the clinicians behind the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (MBCT, see this post ) describe, it's the tendency towards rumination which drives the spiral. Or another way of saying this is that the habitual attempts to problem solve our emotional states is the problem. As they write in The Mindful Way through Depression, "When we ruminate, we become fruitlessly occupied with the fact that we are unhappy and with the causes, meanings, and consequences of our unhappiness." We continue this rumination because, essentially, we are convinced that thinking is the only way out of the unhappiness. But trying to control through thought, which is so useful in other realms and pursuits, doesn't work with emotions. You can build a bridge with that logical mindset, but try to have a relationship based on the same ideas.

So the alternative to this problem solving mind, what actually works with the emotions of depression, is mindfulness, acceptance of the present as it is , rather than continually comparing the present to the desired future, and finding oneself, one's life, and the world in generally constantly lacking.

Depression feeds on this perceived deficiency, whereas mindfulness practice opens us up to, not the idea of plenty, but the actual experience that in this very moment, there is nothing wrong. As you develop this capacity to observe, the experiences of this "ok-ness" deepens, and it starts automatically undercutting despair. (You can still see what you want to change, but it doesn't wrench you emotionally.) You'll find yourself running with the depression, pushing it along, and then, without even trying, you'll remember, "Oh, I don't have to do this!" and either push back or get out of the pool

You will fall back in, of course, but with an ongoing mindfulness practice, you stay in less and less, get submerged more infrequently, and stop swimming hard with the spiral.
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