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Mindful : April 2015
begin to perceive that you’re becoming trapped in the self-perpetuating depression loop. You’re des- perate for escape, but, sideswiped by fear and neg- ativity, you become so overwhelmed that you just keep going around and around and around. Soon a sense of learned helplessness sets in: you can no lon- ger even see the exit, so you stop trying to break free and begin to believe you may never escape. This was a common occurrence for one of my patients, 30 -year-old Sandy, who had experienced bouts of depression her whole life. Typically she would feel fine for a while, but then at times, seem- ingly out of nowhere, she would become depressed. Sandy would lose interest in activities she usually enjoyed and have trouble finding the motivation she needed for everyday tasks. Feelings such as unwor- thiness and guilt would begin to flood her mind, and in response, she tended to isolate herself from her family and friends and make choices that fueled her depression rather than pull her out of it. Sandy experienced depression as a persistently reinforcing loop that dragged her down. Nega- tive thoughts would trigger troubling feelings (or vice versa) that in short time would turn into an ever-present depressed mood state. This would make it tough for Sandy to get out of bed in the morning. Doing the activities she usually enjoyed felt nea rly impossible, a nd instead of partaking in life, Sandy would often end up sitting in her apart- ment feeling terrible about herself, eating too much, drinking too much, and sinking deeper a nd deeper into a morass of gloom. Sandy didn’t know this, but each time she experienced a bout of depression and got lost in the depression loop, her brain actually cha nged. When we practice anything in life over a nd over again, it starts to become automatic; in psychology, we call that a conditioned habitual reaction, and in neurosci- ence, it’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Right now 80 billion to 100 billion ner ve cells, or neurons, are interacting with what some have said are one trillion connections, called synapses, in an unimaginably fast a nd dynamic network. When we do something over a nd over—whether it’s something we’re trying to learn, such as improving our tennis stroke; or something we’d rather not learn, like an anxiety response to dogs after being bitten by one— neurons in our brains fire together. As we repeat these actions, they eventually wire together, making the process an unconscious habit. One day Sandy came to see me looking particu- larly distressed, and she told me that she’d received an email that a client of hers was angry with her work. In exploring it together, we realized that this kind of cue triggered worries about losing that client, increasing her anxiety, and making her heart race and her breathing become shallow. Her mind spiraled with negative hopeless thoughts about the future of her business, and she began to avoid doing her work. Sandy knew she was getting depressed, and this spiraled into more fear. Her response pre- vented her from dealing with the client’s email in a logical, objective way. Sandy was ready to sta rt breaking this cycle when she fina lly recognized her depressive loop for what it really was: a deeply conditioned habit (or trauma reaction). In fact, just understanding the concept of the depression loop was enough for Sandy to start effecting a change in her relationship to depression. She was able to see it in action in her daily life and name it. The moment she saw it occurring, she was able to stand apart from it in a space of awareness that was separate from the loop itself and gain per- spective. She no longer felt she was the loop—rather, she was the aware person viewing the loop. In this space, she found a sense of freedom and a “choice point,” a moment in time when she was aware enough to choose a healthier response. The first step in uncovering happiness and expe- riencing freedom from the depression loop, then, is lea rning how to objectively see this loop in action instead of getting lost in it. The moment we notice the depression loop in action is a moment we’ve stepped outside of it, into a space of perspective a nd choice. From there, we have more work to do. The brain habits we have can be deep-seated. The helpless- ness we’ve learned ca n stick with us. The beauty is, though, that science is now showing us that → ILLUSTRATIONBYMINDFUL,WITHFILESFROMANDRECERDAS/THENOUNPROJECTAND©ISTOCK.COM/HUDIEMM 60 mindful April 2015 happiness