When we feel depressed, we are more likely to get stuck in cycles of repetitive ruminative thoughts that have a negative emotional tone. We may regret the past, judge ourselves as unworthy or unlovable, blame others for our problems, or anticipate a bleak future. These ruminative cycles exacerbate feelings of sadness, shame or anger, and interfere with motivation to try to move on or actively solve problems. Depressive thought cycles like these seem to be entrenched, and are very difficult to break, even when we try to use logic to refute the negative thinking. Ruminative thinking makes depression worse and is even a predictor of subsequent depression in non-depressed people and of relapse in previously depressed people.
What Brain Processes Underly Depressive Rumination?
Recently, scientists at Stanford University have begun to uncover what might be going on in our brains during depressive rumination. A July 2015 study, “Depressive Rumination, the Default-Mode Network, and the Dark Matter of Clinical Neuroscience,” authored by J. Paul Hamilton and colleagues was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. This study statistically combined several previous research studies using meta-analytic tools and came to the conclusion that depressed people had increased functional brain connections between two different brain areas:
The subgenual PFC helps to direct the DMN towards reflecting on and trying to solve the problems which the brain considers most pressing or important for survival. This process can be functional if such reflection actually leads to finding new answers or taking effective action.
In depression, the subgenual PFC seems to go haywire, hijacking normal self-reflection into a state of mind that is negative, self-focused, and withdrawn. In this state of mind, we continually reflect on our problems in a repetitive, negatively-toned way, but are de-motivated to actually engage with the world so as to solve those problems. Depressed people tend to go on and on talking about themselves and their problems, yet seem mentally stuck and unable to move forward. The fact that they can’t just “snap out of it” is consistent with the idea that a dysfunctional brain network may be involved in depressive thinking.
What You Can Do to Combat Depressive, Ruminative ThinkingTry Transcranial Magnetic ImaginingSome preliminary research shows that this intervention may change abnormal functional connectivity within the DMN.
Deliberately Focus on a TaskIt doesn’t matter whether it’s tidying your closets, doing the laundry, or doing a crossword puzzle, getting an “on-task” focus can de-activate the DMN and instead activate the “on-task” areas of the brain.
Take a Walk in Nature A 2015 study by Bratman and colleagues from Stanford University, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that for healthy participants, a 90-minute walk in a natural setting, decreased both ruminative thinking and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex whereas a 90-minute walk in an urban setting had no such effects on either rumination or neural activity. In other words, walking in a natural environment seems to open up your thinking in a way that lessens the grip of the faulty brain network.
Focus on Your SensesDeliberately focusing your attention on what you are seeing, hearing, feeling, sensing, or smelling right now, can help your brain get out of an automatic mind-wandering state and de-activate the DMN. Instead, you focus mindfully on your direct experience in the present moment, which activates the “on-task” network.
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Practice MeditationMindfulness meditation is a practice that can teach you to gain control of the focus of your attention—to be more aware of what you are thinking about and able to redirect your focus. In one small study (Brewer et al.) that scanned the brains of novice and experienced meditators, the experienced meditators showed less DMN activation and reported less mind-wandering during three different meditative activities (like watching the breath or doing a compassion meditation).
It's true that Valentines Day is saturated with commercialism and false sentimentality. Still, why not use it this year to try out a new you. Every relationship is a laboratory in which you can try out new behaviors. Consider these:
1. Warm His/Her Heart. Celebrate Valentines Day by practicing kindness and generosity, even if your partner is behaving badly. Do the little things that make him or her feel loved, valued, and chosen. Remember that you can communicate interest, generosity and love in nonverbal ways, as well as with words and language. A simple gesture—a hand on a back, a nod, a smile—can make your partner feel seen and cared for.
No matter how distant your marriage has become, and no matter how dense you claim to be about relationships, come up with three specific actions you can take to make your partner feel loved and respected on Valentines Day. No expert in the universe knows what warms your partner’s heart the way you do. It’s deciding in advance what your three things are --and doing them--that’s the hard part.
2.Give Him/Her a Break—Tell him/her What You Want. Your partner may be about to blow off Valentines Day—and it‘s important to you to celebrate. Don’t wait until he/she forgets, as if you’re giving him/her a test that you’re waiting for him/her to fail. Give the poor guy/gal a break and remind him/her a week in advance. Tell him/her what you want, even though you think he/she should know. (“I want you to make a reservation at our favorite Italian restaurant, and I want a Valentines Day card. And don’t forget—I hate flowers!”) Don’t count on him/her to have learned from his/her mistakes from last year.
3.Call off the Chase. If you’re married to a distancer, Valentines Day is a good time to call off the chase. Don’t use this special day to “process” your relationship and talk about how the two of you never talk. Instead, just talk.
4. Don’t pursue him/her. Valentines Day is not the time to bring up your partner’s lack of warmth, interest, and attentiveness, or to compare him/her unfavorably with your best friend’s romantic husband/wife. If, say, you go to a movie and you’re upset that he/she doesn’t hold your hand or seem to acknowledge your presence, let it go. When you leave the theater, just talk about the movie. Surprise him/her with praise, just when he/she imagines you’re going to hit him/her with criticism.
5. Overcome Your L.D.D. (Listening Deficit Disorder). Listening without defensiveness is the ultimate spiritual act and the most precious Valentine’s gift that we can give our partner. Decide in advance that on this special day you will enter every conversation with the goal of asking questions and listening only to understand. This means that you don’t interrupt, argue, defend yourself, correct his/her exaggerations or distortions, or bring up grievances of your own. Save your defense for a future conversation on another day.
5. Forget about being right. Try to catch yourself when your focus on being right blocks you from working toward a common purpose—having a great Valentines Day together!
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.