Sometimes you face major hardships in life and as a result, you might end up having depression, clinical depression, officially named major depressive disorder.
Clinical depression has been found to affect significantly more women than men. By January 2016, studies suggested that depression affected 20% to 25% of women whilst affecting 7% to 12% of men .
Fast forward to 2020, and it was estimated that there had been a substantial increase in the prevalence of major depressive disorder around the globe due to the pandemic and its handling . No surprise there.
So its prevalence is common. If you’ve experienced depression at some point in your life, or know someone who has, you are not alone by any means.
Depression Reoccurrence Is Also Common
Also common is suffering from depression again at a later point in your life. But is that reoccurrence due to not taking medication for long enough as some would have you believe? Or is it due to something happening in your life that has massively affected how you feel about yourself and your life?
And how much are the neurological changes that have taken place as a result of your first episode to blame for heightened susceptibility to a repeat occurrence of depression?
And most importantly, what can you do about it?
New research highlights a specific difference in those who’ve had depression previously and those who haven’t, and here I’ll address a few solutions to ‘strengthen’ your brain to minimise the chances of you experiencing depression, and depressive symptoms, again.
Research Comparing Formerly Depressed People With ‘Healthy People’
Researchers assessed multiple studies to look at differences in the brain’s reaction to negative, positive and neutral irrelevant stimuli (information) in those who had experienced major depressive disorder in the past, and those who had not and were categorised as ‘healthy’ participants for the sake of the studies .
Their analysis – which included a total of 2,081 participants with prior major depressive disorder and 2,285 healthy control participants from all the samples used in the review – revealed that those who had previously had major depressive disorder, processed negative irrelevant information for longer compared to processing positive irrelevant information.
They highlight that as a result, this negative ‘bias can prolong the presence of negative material while shortening the presence of positive material in working memory, which may lead to a cycle of higher levels of negative (vs. positive) mood and thoughts.’
As a result, this can have an ongoing negative effect on how the brain processes information.
As noted by the researchers, this negative bias in the brain’s cognition can lead to negative effects in (a) how a person processes information in relation themselves, (b) their ability to interpret something negative in a more positive light through positive reappraisal, and (c) their emotion regulation which in turn can result in dysregulated moods and difficulties pursuing goals, big and small.
The implication being that these negative repercussions increase the risk for future major depressive disorders.
And even if they don’t cause reoccurring depression, the effects will still hinder your life and wellbeing, significantly.
Importantly, their analyses suggest that it’s not necessarily just the prolonged processing of negative information that increases the risk for reoccurring depression, but rather, the combination of prolonged processing of negative material with shortened processing of positive information.
Don’t Panic & Don’t Be Hard On Yourself
So if your brain is automatically processing negative irrelevant information for longer than it processes positive irrelevant information, and this is potentially putting you at heightened risk for another episode of depression, what can you do to address the imbalance and thus potentially prevent depression? I’m going to share 5 easy tips with you, but first, this.
Do not be hard on yourself. This is an understandable change for your brain to make. Your brain, ever the faithful servant, is trying to help you. It’s trying to keep you safe and alive even though its approach may be considered a malfunction of sorts.
Think about it this way. When you’ve walked – or crawled – through darkness, any new negativity can be perceived as very threatening, partially, perhaps, because you don’t want to go back to that dark place.
Anyone who’s journeyed through extreme darkness in their life will tell you that it’s the last place they want to go again. You may come out stronger and wiser because of it but that doesn’t mean you don’t fear being pulled into that direction again.
So perhaps your brain has become accustomed to processing negative information for longer, so as to be absolutely sure it’s not a threat, but by doing so, it is keeping you in a fearful state and not allowing you to process positive information properly or for as long as required to keep a healthy and helpful balance between alert and optimistic, alert and appreciative, alert and goal-directed.
Use your fear of going back to where you were as motivation to propel you towards positive thoughts and actions to ensure, as much as you can, that you don’t end up back in that dark place.
Of course, not everything is in our control. Life happens. But you can take charge of everything you are in control of. So let’s look at those 5 easy tips to help you, in a brief, easy, overview.
5 Easy Tips For Balancing Your Negative & Positive Focus
1. Be present
Focus on being grounded in the present moment. Being present – i.e. being mindful – with a sense of gratitude, can get you out of your head and into the present moment. Doing so can even feel euphoric. As your brain isn’t running ahead 100 miles an hour thinking unnecessary negative thoughts (given the negative cognitive bias mentioned above), it can quell anxiety symptoms, thus helping you to have mental clarity, which in turn can help you to better deal with tricky situations in your work and personal life. Doing so prevents the spillover effect of a prolonged negative focus on your personal and professional life.
Furthermore, mindfulness and mindfulness meditation has also been linked to increased self-esteem and in turn, improved life satisfaction . Not only is this helpful in and of itself, but it’s also helpful because sometimes the thing that made you enter depression in the past, or something that is emotionally hurting you right now, may be hindering your self-esteem right now. So using mindfulness is one way to help boost your self-esteem to a healthy level, thereby buffering you from dipping into depression.
Additionally, this in turn improves how you see yourself (your self-image), and improves how you relate to others, how you perceive feedback from others, how proactively you pursue goals that will make you happy, and so much more.
2. Balance negatives with positives
Focus on what you’re grateful for about your life so that you force your mind to start focusing on positives much more again. Clean running water in your tap. The relationships you have. The safety you feel in your home. The clothes you love in your wardrobe. The job you enjoy. Your friendly neighbours. Your loving pets. The laughter you hear around family or friends. The clean, green space near your home. Whatever the positives in your life, be consciously, purposefully grateful for them.
Remember that anything you do with repetition becomes a habit, and that habit becomes wired into your brain forming part of its ever evolving structure, compelling you to then carry out those habits somewhat automatically. In this case, having gratitude would be the habit, a habit that would serve you and your goals by balancing your perspective on life, thereby buffering you from low moods and reducing that possible risk of another bout of depression.
3. Adopt a helpful outlook
If your brain is currently processing negative thoughts for longer than positive thoughts, as per the aforementioned research, then retrain it to start working in a more healthy manner once again like the ‘healthy’ participants’ brains.
Retrain your brain to respond to negativity-inducing triggers with positive thoughts, such as, ‘Life is always ushering me in the direction of my goals and happiness even when times are tough’ or ‘I am safe’ or ‘I am growing as an individual’ or ‘We’re getting better at being honest with each other as time goes by’ or whatever might be appropriate, relevant and believable for where you mentally are right now.
Your brain is ever-changing, take charge of the direction you want it to change in.
4. Do things that make you feel good about yourself
Engage in activities that help you to feel better about yourself – your self-image and self-esteem, in other words, how you see yourself and how you value yourself. It’s easy to become unsociable and sedentary, and stop doing the things that once gave you joy or that would make you happy right now, when you’re fighting against the fatigue that comes with pervasive negative thoughts, ongoing low moods, and any fear and anxiety that you may also have.
It can also feel safer to stay home and not see anyone.
But we’re social creatures and we need physical movement for numerous psychological, emotional and physical benefits that ultimately help us to be happier and healthier. So get up, get out, and do the things at home and outside the home that help you to feel happy. Make a list of ideas. Pick the ones that really appeal. And go do them. You’ll notice you feel way better after than you anticipated you would. And all those positive thoughts and feelings you induce frequently, help to buffer you from a prolonged negative focus.
5. Address the cause and move away from the cause
If you’re feeling depressed, there is one or more thing that is making you feel glum, or outright miserable or heartbroken. Now, of course, some things are going to make you sad – such as the death of a loved one or a relationship break-up – and time is a great healer. But what you do in that time also helps or hinders.
Engage in activities that help you to feel better about your life, however painful things feel right now. Work on taking action in the direction of progress, goals, achievement, happiness, and optimism.
For example, if your marriage is in a bad place, work on making it better, discuss the issues, be proactive about implementing solutions, and celebrate your positive progress. If your body confidence is low, focus on what you can do to improve it. If you feel lonely, meet up with loved ones more frequently, or seek out new friends through activity groups, or simply get around compassionate fellow human beings more often through things like volunteer work.
Your Emotions Are There To Help You
Use your emotions to help direct you towards health and happiness. As I say in Resilient Me:
‘Your emotions are your mental health feedback system, similar to the body’s physical health and survival feedback systems…We use negative emotions to know that ‘something doesn’t feel good’ and needs addressing, and positive emotions to know that ‘things feel good’ and can or should continue.’
Learn from your emotions, use them to direct you and your life in a positive way. And use your emotions to gauge when you’ve arrived at that better destination you had hoped for.
Life can be challenging, but if you take charge of what you can, you’ll be happier and healthier for it, at least eventually even if not immediately, and that’s okay. Just get there as soon as you can.
1. Wang, J., Wu, X., Lai, W., Long, E., Zhang, X., Li, W., Zhu, Y., Chen, C., Zhong, X., Liu, Z., Wang, D., & Lin, H. (2017). Prevalence of depression and depressive symptoms among outpatients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open, 7(8), e017173. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-017173
2. COVID-19 Mental Disorders Collaborators (2021). Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet, 398(10312), 1700–1712. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02143-7
3. Wen, A., Fischer, E. R., Watson, D., & Yoon, K. L. (2023). Biased cognitive control of emotional information in remitted depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science, 10.1037/abn0000848. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/abn0000848
4. 11. Pepping, Christopher & O’Donovan, Analise & Davis, Penelope. (2013). The positive effects of mindfulness on self-esteem. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 376-386. 10.1080/17439760.2013.807353.