Making depression a habit – breaking the downward spiral

I don’t know what’s worth fighting for
Or why I have to scream
I don’t know why I instigate
And say what I don’t mean
I don’t know how I got this way
I know it’s not alright
So I’m breaking the habit
I’m breaking the habit

– from Linkin Park’s “Breaking the Habit”

Linkin Park is on my iPod – great beat to I run and workout to. Yesterday I was listening and the whole “habit” thing reminded me of this post. That we have to actively work on own healing. Like Tollefson said,

Recovery is earned, not a given….Recovery is not easy…Recovery is not a reason to display pain.

It also reminded me of triggers – lasting out, hurting others, and having no idea how you got that way. Wow.

So, on to this habit of depression

My husband is a wonderful man. We are two engineers who enjoy shopping at Home Depot and discussing technical problems over wine on a date. But he is a doer and I am a thinker. As I obsessed over ending my therapy and struggled with the nadirs, he stated that he thought I was making this depression a habit – reading and researching. I countered that I was trying to learn in order to heal. How much truth is there to his statement?

The circular path of this post

This post took some interesting turns as I research the idea of habits and depression. I start with some definitions and move on to exploring if the habit of depression has real merit. I also talk about methods to break the depression cycle, and that it takes more than just recognizing the downward spiral. I finish with some thoughts about depression and trauma and the idea of healing through compassion and self esteem. And then, of course, the obligatory silly counter argument.

Some definitions

Habit (psychology), an acquired pattern of behavior that often occurs automatically [ref]

A mental character or disposition: a habit of mind. [ref]

A habit may be formed by doing something over and over until it becomes familiar or second nature.

Depression is most powerful when you believe it is inevitable and unchangeable [Charlie]

Depression is a strong mood involving sadness, discouragement, despair, or hopelessness that lasts for weeks, months, or even longer. It is not something you can “snap out of.” It interferes with a person’s ability to participate in normal activities. [ref] [Depression]

Depression is caused by several factors, including an imbalance of chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the brain, genetics, environmental, and psychological factors. It can be brought on by stress, or the cause may be unknown. It is very common, but responds to treatment. [NIMH]

So, if depression is something that is often beyond your control, or something that you don’t actively initiate, how can it be a habit? Do we actually get depressed over and over, thus making it a habit?

The depression habit

“Habit” is an interesting word. Some things become habit based on internal and/or external factors. Stress, poverty. Sometimes they occur voluntarily (look both ways before you cross the street). Behavior also plays a part in habits – if you see the world as a negative place, it affects how you feel. This can become a “habit” with regard to depression.

Interestingly, I did find some references to the depression habit. The “habit” part of it is actually a downward spiral that is difficult to stop or reverse. The Students Against Depression wrote:

When you start getting low, you get into the cycle of feeling low and doing low things. It’s easy to think that people really don’t like you, you are a nuisance, can do nothing right, don’t want to get up because you’re tired, don’t want to go out and mix with people… and so it goes on.

Depressed thinking habits bring about a narrowed perspective which significantly clouds one’s judgment. This tunnel vision reduces the ability to find complex, rather than all-or-nothing, solutions to problems. [ref] Our society enhances the probability of depression with the assumption that second-best is not good enough, reliance on others is weak, as well as validating the absurdity of unrealistic expectations like Size 0 jeans, airbrushed models, and perfect tits. Chronic stress is another major factor, which is brought on by a wealth of other factors.

Hell, we ALL ought to be depressed with this world we live in!

Students Against Depression write specifically to college-level students but the message can be universal. They say that some characteristics of depression become habits because that’s what the depression has pulled you into. The depression habit cycle is presented on their website and shown below. I hate to cut and paste, but I can’t summarize any better than their table.

Context Cynicism, sense of meaninglessness, unattainable social values
Thoughts Negative, pessimistic depressed thinking habits
Biology Chronic stress, depleted mood chemicals, fatigue
Actions Disturbed sleep, lethargy and inactivity, social withdrawal
Mood Low, depressed, numb, lacking motivation

Breaking the cycle

Students Against Depression advise that anything you do to break the cycle can help turn things around, and then you can find longer-term strategies for dealing with the depression. Look at the cycle and pick one place to attack it to break it. Kinda makes sense if you can manage it, but some steps seem easier than others. It would be nearly impossible in the “Context” step to force yourself to magically believe your life has meaning, although it could be much easier to address sleep and inactivity issues if you could get your butt outside to walk a bit, or try some physical activity.

I find it interesting that they state that depression should not be viewed as an individual problem because this only leads to more isolation and feelings of being a passive victim. Instead, we need to consider depression in the social context – it is a “social and cultural issue.” [Charlie] Individuals with depression should not consider themselves a “failure,” but should find relief that depression is a real illness. Research is showing biological markers, and medications are being developed to address depression.

So how the heck can you change these social and cultural issues? Hah, ain’t gonna happen quick enough to help us. But, one way to counteract the issues is to evaluate just what they mean to you, and which are important or relevant to you. <screw the rest>

Many people become so used to thinking of themselves as depressed they stop defining themselves in any other way. Their depression becomes more than an illness – it becomes their whole way of life. [Sorenson]

Ah, so the depression itself is not a habit, but having the illness of depression can lead to habitual thinking that counters healing. There are really *two* issues at play here – one possibly biological one AND one habitual one. Makes sense. And maybe that’s why treatment often consists of meds AND psychotherapy.

Boy, the proposed solution is simple, but not easy. The first thing is to change your thinking – you are not a depressed person – “you are an ordinary person with ordinary problems.” [Sorensen] But that still isn’t a good motivator – based on the whole societal/cultural thing, people don’t WANT to be normal ordinary people. But he does advise that we have to make an effort, through drugs and therapy if needed, in order to pull out of it. Depression doesn’t magically end without our conscious decision to actively participate in healing.

Another interesting perspective is that Depression is a Choice. I am not quite sure I believe this because the site advises this can be done without drugs as if drugs are bad. However, Curtiss has some good suggestions to help break the cycle, along the lines of what Students Against Depression suggest. I don’t know if this is the cure, but it can certainly be used to transition to more effective long term treatment goals.

I like that he personifies depression as having thoughts and motivations. He suggests doing specific things that “depression does not want you to do”:

  • Ÿ Add an item of personal grooming that you don’t normally do for work or other regular activities.
  • Recognize and verbalize habitual thoughts that come with the depression. Replace the feeling with a different thought and scream it in your head to drown out the depression feeling.
  • Don’t think about yourself. Send someone a note, a funny email, leave a nice message on their answering machine.
  • To address being overwhelmed, pick a small task at hand and complete it. Then look for the next one.
  • Leave the house and do one small thing related to ordinary life. Walk, go to the book store.

I love this quote:

Depression is not regular life. Depression is a state of alarm that gets stuck in itself like an auto horn that keeps blowing. Isolating yourself is another habit of depression that you should start to break.

The “habit” of depression seems to be related to isolation, all-or-nothing thinking (if I am not the best…), and a feeling of worthlessness and loneliness. Obsessing about things. Let’s pursue this “thinking” thing.

McGrath writes in The Rumination Rut that if we ruminate without taking action, it intensifies the feelings of anxiety as the problem you are chasing is not solved.

Rumination is a style of thinking in which, like a hamster in a cage, you run in tight circles on a treadmill in your brain. It means obsessing about problems, about a loss, about any kind of a setback or ambiguity without moving past thought into the realm of action.

She also states that women are much more prone to this type of thinking, where men tend to address problems by action without thinking enough. Think about the problem for five minutes; if you haven’t solved it, talk it through with another. Talk to friends and family about your tendency to obsess and get stuck in that state. While this is not specifically a habit of depression, it is a personal characteristic that could suggest the tendency.

Depression, trauma and breaking the cycle

So far, we’ve talked about depression in the more general sense. But what about habitual depression as a result of trauma? At least we understand the underlying cause of these depressions, perhaps making it easier to break the downward spiral. In therapy, we are given coping mechanisms – go outside, read a book, see a friend. Others are related to trauma – start a journal and tell your story. Tie you depressive symptoms to the trauma to validate that your depression IS valid and caused by SOMEONE ELSE. Accepting that you are not responsible is one wonderful way to break the cycle.

Loolwa Khazzoom, in her blog Dancing with Pain, talks personally about the downward spiral of depression. A friend told her she would continue to “spin” until she could get her story out on paper. But as a writer, she would shut down as soon as she tried to write it. With the help of a friend, she found a solution – she would talk her story as her friend typed. This captured her story as well as communicating/connecting with a friend. She says it was the start of her healing journey.

Talking to a stranger about your story and the depression can actually be easier than opening up to friends and family. [SANE] I found this a wonderful start to my own healing. After about 14 years of silence, I blurted out what happened to me to two people within the same month. I had been triggered and was afraid of more uncontrolled tellings that both surprised me and frightened me.

But I had a new acquaintance who was perceptive enough know I was going through something, and a couple of times he offered to talk. Since I had only known him a short time, he was essentially “expendable” if he rejected me for my story. But after I completed my first “controlled” telling in so long, he did not reject me, but supported me and praised me. It was such a shock to me to be completely accepted, and that was a big turning point in my own healing process.

A “stranger” can also be someone on the internet. While you need to be careful of the nutcases out there (hey, *I* could be one!), there are good people with the same problem who are also exploring. Although I am personally wary of chat rooms because many people there are also downward spiraling and they may actually intensify your downward spiral. Blogs like Khazzoom’s might be a better bet – blogs are often created by people motivated to convey useful information with a personal touch, and even creating a blog is a significant step in healing. (Even my first therapist agreed and encouraged me when I started this blog).

Another interesting thought to those of us who have difficulty opening up to other people but who love animals, is to volunteer at an animal shelter. My cats love me unconditionally – petting and playing with them is a personal connection that requires no explanation, but it makes me feel valued to another living creature.


I found a wonderful article by Albert Foong that I think I will review later: Psychology’s unique contribution to your Compassion and Self-Esteem. It is so deep and compelling and a bit of a long read, but I identified with it so much. It has much basis psychology and on Buddhist teachings, talks about the path of finding compassion for yourself and the three stages to get there: Understanding, Acceptance, and Forgiveness. Courage, he says, is the first and most vital step in moving out of depression. His blog is Urban Monk – I love the name and concept!

Random closing thoughts

You know, I hate to throw stuff out there that is off-track, but I generally trip across some funny or interesting stuff as I surf.

This guy secretGeek has a post called, “How to be depressed – a quick guide to getting less out of life.” Oh god, the irony!

Depression is so very easy to achieve. You may think that depression is difficult; that it relies upon tricky chemical imbalances in the brain, that it requires a genetic predisposition, or an intensely traumatic childhood. Not at all! Depression can work for anyone! … You can lay the foundations for depression with just a few minutes work each day.

Evolution has given human beings an amazing intellectual faculty … to adapt to any environment. … To turn adversity into triumph and to survive … These very same talents can be converted into a weapon against ourselves, allowing us to transform any situation into a reason to feel like crap, to put ourselves down, and to drink deeply from the bitter well of despair.

He goes on to list and then detail many cognitive distortions that easily bring about depression. It was both an informative and interesting read, facilitated by the dark humor.


Depression (2008). Understanding depression, accessed from

Charlie Walker Memorial Trust. (2007). Depression in context, accessed from

Charlie Walker Memorial Trust. (2007). The Depression Habit Spiral, accessed from

McGrath E. (2007). The Rumination Rut: Women are more likely to ruminate obsessively, Psychology Today, accessed from

National Institute of Mental Health. (2008). Depression, accessed from

Sorensen S (???).Understanding “Earned Depression” Mental Health Sanctuary, accessed from



  David Martin wrote @

Hi, I’m struggling with a downward spiral of chronic stress. I mean it physically makes me sick. I can actually feel the spiral inside my head and it spins all the time. I have been to the Dr. and its not physical, but now i am out of work and have no insurance. I have found a few natural remedies that do help. but Why would this spiral go all the way to the pit of my stomach and make me sick. It was cause by a job that was to big for me. and I have been dealing with it for years. I can function fine but it just makes me sick and its a very powerful feeling and a sickening feeling. I need some help and advice with this. Don’t really want to do the therapist thing now. Just talk with someone who can be a sounding board.

  Emily’s Camigwen wrote @

Hello David

I am sorry for a late reply. I am so sorry to hear of your pain and stress. Yes, stress over time leads to physical illness, and it can cause such a spin in your head that it seems like you can’t think straight. That your thoughts really do seem to spiral in circles down into everything negative.

You are not alone in this. Okay? What you are experiencing isn’t some bizarre strange thing. It’s “normal.”

I am no expert in depression, only that I’ve experienced depression on and off for nearly my entire life, and come to recognize the feel and trends of it. You sound in the depths of it, and my heart aches for all who feel in that deep place.

A friend of mine who suffers PTSD and depression with me talked about feeling like he was in the bottom of a valley looking up. Me and others reached to him – to look up to the sky – that we were hands here for him. He was able to climb out and look back to see where he had been, and to realize how much a little help from a friend could do. It’s so hard to trust others, I know. But it is so detrimental to keep within ourselves.

Lack of insurance simply sucks. No other words for it. Are there community groups you can seek out? Like AA or Alanon-type groups that are targeted for depression? I know they are in my area. I would suggest you just pick one and just take the plunge and show up to one and see what happens.

I’m sorry I have no answers, but you asked for a sounding board. My advice is to find a sounding board you can reach out to whenever you need to. A friend, a member of the community … a forum.

My very best to you David,
Cami and Emily

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