Stuck in a negative network, changing thoughts or actions is just plain hard.
“I cannot do what you suggest – I know it won’t work.”
That was Jon’s mantra as he sat in my office and said that he can never be happy. The one thing he wants – a wife and family – will never happen because fate has determined he is not to succeed in that goal. Yet most of the options he has available to meet someone new, are options he believes will not work.
Why is he resisting an idea about how to meet new people – one of whom may someday be interested in him? His inability to move from one idea to another to create a change in thinking or in attitude is typical for depression. And, as in Jon’s case, it seems willful. That is what family and friends see when they want their depressed loved ones to “Just do it!” It is easy to judge from the outside, and it is hard to see the inside person with depression who cannot easily change a thought or an action.
That stuckness is a feature of underlying neurobiology. All of us think in networks: when we start to think about a topic, we enter a network of related concepts. That is efficient and helpful. Ideas are linked and things we need to know are easier to access when we enter a network of similar ideas, experiences, or emotions. That is why when people are trying to develop a creative solution to a problem, they brainstorm. That is, they utter or write every idea that pops into their minds about solving a problem, no matter how ridiculous it sounds on the surface, and do not assess the idea until they have a long list of options. The value of brainstorming is we skip out of the already formed network and spur the brain to hop into a new network. Rational assessment then follows to choose a good option but the brainstorming helps find a fresh way of thinking, feeling or acting in response to the situation that needs a new solution.
That same efficient brain that networks and categorizes also causes a problem when depression hits. Entering a negative network that connects similar thoughts, experiences and emotions results in a depressed person linking negative networks. It promotes the discouraged outlook that is typical in depression. And, unfortunately, in depression, the ability to move to another network is impaired. The impaired activity of neurotransmitters causes stuckness in the pathway in the brain that allows shifting of thought and emotion.
That pathway includes a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) that should allow for rapid shifting between emotion and thinking and should aid in developing creative problem solving. But when people suffer depression, this pathway of the brain is impaired. It may be over active – spinning in place without creating movement. Or it may be sluggish and unable pass along cognitive decisions like, “I will try something new,” to the emotional part of the brain that generates the discouraged, “I never have good results.”
Emotion rules when there is depression. The negative “It won’t work for me,” seems to exert more power than the optimistic, “Just give it a try,” of the thinking brain.
Sitting with Jon, I want to say, “Just do what I am suggesting!” I want him to borrow my ability to generate a new idea, but some things have to change before he can easily try something new. He cannot respond to “just do it” while his negative networking is keeping him in the belief that his case is different. His ideas of how to act are the ones in the network of what he has typically done. And that is a pretty negative network. He does not believe that a different idea WILL work, because he is discouraged and stuck in the negative network of other failed experiences.
How can he get out of this?
He needs a MAP.
When you use a map – even your navigator – you have to know where you are starting and where you are going. Jon needs to believe he is currently stuck and that another way just might be possible. But where is he going? He needs to believe in a reasonable solution. In our conversations, Jon is beginning to believe that his depressed thinking is a problem. Medication might help him be less negative – it can correct the neurotransmitter problems that cause the sluggish or overactive pathway to prevent new ideas. (Supplements and nutrition and sunlight can also help!) Next he needs to redefine his goal. If marriage to exactly the right person is the only thing that will make him happy, then I cannot help him. He needs a matchmaker and a lot of money for that. If he re-defines to wanting a contented life, therapy can guide him.
But once he can see the need for help to navigate to his goal of a contented life, he needs to find a map. His map will need to take him toward feeling better and developing a more flexible, creative way of thinking. If he can get out of the negative network he will be more able to generate new actions and take more charge of his discouraged mood.
MAP – Move, Ask, Play
M – (You may want to consider medication as the first M but then go to this one)
Jon needs to move. Literally move his body. The stuck brain finds it easier to shift gears when the physical body is moving. Walking, swimming, bike riding can all be good. Try movement without earbuds pumping music. The creative brain will take over and just might jump the tracks of negativity while you move. And vigorous exercise has a way of pumping up energy that lightens depression.
A – Ask for input. When we brainstorm it works better if we have more than one person adding ideas. We spur each other into different networks. Jon might benefit if he shares his challenge of being stuck with a friend or three. And it will be good for him to ask people what gives them happiness or satisfaction. He might hear there are many ways to be content.
P – Play around with different options. Jon does not have to commit to an idea of what is fun or pleasurable or satisfying. He would benefit from literally playing – playing with the children in his life whose joy is infectious. Play sports or games. The action of play stimulates different networks and may result in some changes in his mood or thoughts that help him be less depressed.
There is a saying that life is a journey not a destination. I do not know Jon’s ultimate destination, nor does he. The outcome of this MAP will be a better, more creative and less depressed way to make his journey.