It’s not your fault: The brain circuits behind rumination, depression & anxiety

A fascinating examination of the brains of people who suffer from anxiety and depression has revealed some really interesting insight about how your brain works, and why its so hard to stop thinking once you get in a negative state.

According to a report on the study from Forbes, an examination of 9,000 brain imaging scans has showed that people who suffer from depression or anxiety show low levels of activity in areas of the brain responsible for “cognitive control,” while showing increased activity the parts of the brain which “process emotional thoughts and feelings.”

In other words: People who suffer from depression/anxiety have a harder time controlling their thoughts and keeping their mind from running away from them.

I mean, realistically speaking, this should surprise absolutely no one. If you suffer from depression or anxiety, you know that it is nearly impossible to control your thoughts or your feelings. But, for those of us who suffer, I would hope you can take a degree of comfort in this study, as it physically explains why your brain simply will not shut off on days where you are in pain: It can’t.

It’s okay. It’s not your fault. It never was. But this is just so interesting to me because it shows the biological mechanisms behind depression and anxiety. And it unquestionably lends credence to the notion that we have to treat depression, anxiety and other mental illness as a physical disease, rather than some separate emotional one.

As I’ve written in the past, there is a strong connection between rumination, depression and anxiety, and this study may help explain why: They are all physically connected.

Of course, this begs the question: What can we do about it? When our brains get “locked in” to this state, how can we alter it?

I mean, there’s the usual stuff: Therapy, medication, meditation, exercise, etc. We know that this stuff works to an extent.

I’m not even sure where to go from here, but I do think this study is absolutely fascinating. It provides a biological explanation that we already knew was out there. It explains why its so hard to stop our brains. I am walking, talking rumination, and I would LOOOOOVE to see what my head looks like when I get into a funk.

Let me wrap this entry up by adding to what I said before. If anything, I would hope that this study provides some perspective and can help get rid of some of the guilt and self-loathing that you may experience when you get into a depressed state. Depression and anxiety are not your fault. They never are and they never will be. And this entry helps to prove it. Your brain is, quite literally, working against you and making it hard for you to break out.

The connection between depression and rumination

I was thinking about this the other day…haha, okay, that’s funny, and you should understand why shortly. Ages ago, I remember seeing a story about the connection between depression and rumination. For these purposes, rumination is roughly defined as thinking, non-stop, and in a bad way. Thinking about your problems. Thinking about being depressed. Chaining all of your depressed thoughts together, one into another, until it avalanches into something terrible. Thinking about all of the things that are wrong, that can go wrong, or that will go wrong. All of this leads to an increase in your levels of depression.

First, the link:

Numerous longitudinal studies point to rumination’s negative effects: For example, research Nolen-Hoeksema conducted on Bay Area residents who experienced the 1989 San Francisco earthquake found that those who self-identified as ruminators afterward showed more symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The article goes on to note many others studies which have come to the same conclusion: People who think too much and think too much about negative things are much more likely to show symptoms of depression.

Why does this happen? Well, this paragraph lays it out nicely:

Many ruminators stay in their depressive rut because their negative outlook hurts their problem-solving ability, said Nolen-Hoeksema. According to her research, they often struggle to find good solutions to hypothetical problems. For example, if a friend is avoiding them, they might say, “Well, I guess I’ll just avoid them too.”

In addition, ruminators express low confidence in their solutions and often fail to enact them–for example, failing to join a bereavement support group despite intending to, said Nolen-Hoeksema.

Not only does ruminating lock you into negative thought patterns that can extend your depression, but it makes it harder to seek out and receive social support.

Alright, so, rumination sucks. Let’s pivot then to something more positive (see what I did there?) – how do you break the cycle of negative thoughts and move onto something more positive? According to this article in Psychology Today, there are a few things you can do. First, stop thinking about the negatives. That’s obvious, but a good way to do this is to instead concentrate on times when things did work out okay, and specifically by “shifting your neural network.” The article specifically advises that you rely on friends and family to help you break up the negative thoughts, use a memory jogger (like pictures, a video or an upbeat social networking status), or listen to good music that will remind you of the positive experience.

Another way – although I admit this one can be very difficult – is to try to “unhook” your thinking. Stop just mindlessly focusing on whatever ails you. Instead, unpack it. Examine it. Ask yourself, what’s really bothering me, here? Is there anything I can do about it? Make a plan of attack in your head to deal with whatever the problem is head on. If you find there’s nothing you can do, no problem! Put it in a little box. There is no sense wasting your valuable time and energy on something that you cannot touch or do anything about.

There’s more, but these are two of the more valuable ways that I’ve discovered. I have to say, this is useful for me. Most of my depression comes from runaway thinking – aka rumination – that I cannot control. I’m going to make a real effort to change my thinking processes here and bring this under control. Maybe meditation will help too? I don’t know.

Either way, I’d love your thoughts, as always! What strategies have you used to bring your own head into shape? Let us know in the comments below!