Understanding Depression

THE first step towards overcoming depression is understanding it. What it is, how it works, and what it does to us.

UNTIL NOW, it has been difficult to link the psychological elements of clinical depression to the physical symptoms.

Now, however, a new breakthrough so profound has changed our ideas of what depression actually is.

And this breakthrough makes depression much, much easier to treat.

It shows us exactly what we have to do to halt depression in its tracks.

And precisely what will stop it coming back.

It removes all uncertainty, and most of the fear from depression.

If you suffer from, or treat depression, this is the most important page of the whole Depression Learning Path.


Depression, Dreaming and Exhaustion: The New Link

How your thoughts affect you physically

"Depressed people dream up to three times as much as non-depressed people."

This is a startling, and illuminating fact. And when combined with a recent breakthrough in dream and depression research by Joseph Griffin of the European Therapy Studies Institute, it gives us a clear understanding of the how depression affects us physically.


The Cycle of Depression

Cycle of Depression

Click here to launch the cycle of depression diagram in a new window if you want to keep it to hand as you read.


What dreams do

If you are, or have been depressed, you may have noticed that you ruminate, or worry a lot during those periods. Typically, these ruminations are emotionally-arousing as they are carried out using 'All or Nothing thinking' (more on this later in the section) and a negative bias. That is, you have a thought and you feel unpleasant after it - anxious, angry or helpless.

The trouble with this sort of emotional arousal is that it doesn't do anything. The thought creates the emotional reaction (usually anxiety or anger) and that's it.

What this does is leave an uncompleted 'loop' in the brain's limbic (emotional) system.

Normally, the emotion would be 'played through' by action being taken. For example: You think "That's a tiger in the bushes", feel anxious, then run away. The cycle has been completed. Or, someone annoys you, you shout at them, and the cycle is completed.

(By the way, we are not advocating the 'playing out' of anger as a therapeutic technique. All that does is makes people more angry!)


But what happens when the cycle doesn't complete?

When these emotionally arousing introspections remain incomplete at the onset of sleep then the brain needs to 'do something' with the emotional 'loops' that have been started.

What it does is create scenarios that allow those loops to complete. We call them dreams. The dream acts out, in metaphor, a situation that will allow the emotional loop to be completed and therefore 'flushed' from the brain. In other words, an imaginary experience whose pattern resembles the 'real life' one enough to create the same emotional reaction.

Normally, this does its job, and everything stays in balance.

However, because you do so much more ruminating, or introspecting, when depressed, the brain has to increase the amount of dreaming you do. And before long you are:

  1. Spending too much time in dream sleep (Rapid Eye Movement - REM) and missing out on physically-rejuvenating Slow Wave Sleep.
  2. Depleting your hormonal system with extended night-time emotional arousal.
  3. Exhausting your 'orientation response' - a crucial brain activity that allows you to change your focus of attention and so motivate yourself. It is also a key part of concentration.

Recurring dreams

If you are continuously having the same problems or ruminating in the same way then you may experience recurring dreams (the same dream over and over). This usually continues until the situation changes or you begin to deal with it in a less negatively arousing way.


Why are my dreams so weird?

Dreams exaggerate the feelings they represent from waking life, so even if you have just had a fleeting moment of anger at someone during the day, the dream that flushes this out may involve you becoming furious.

As an aside, dreams usually just 'borrow' imagery from the your surroundings.

So, for example, images from a recent T.V program may be used by the dream when representing something from real life. So the fact that you kill your brother in a dream, for example, doesn't necessarily mean you have any problems with your brother at all!


Depressive thinking styles mean more arousal

Depressive thinking styles will tend to cause more negative emotional arousal, and therefore more dreaming. This extra dreaming is to try to 'clear the brain' for the next day, but because our negative arousals are excessive when depressed, our natural rhythms find it hard to cope with this "over-dreaming":


Why is over-dreaming bad for me?

Basically, because dreaming is hard work.

Dreaming itself is not a restful activity. Dreaming is called 'paradoxical sleep' because brain wave patterns are similar to those of the brain when completely awake.

Dreaming is a state of arousal.

As far as much of your brain is concerned, your dream is real. So adrenaline and other stress hormones in your system will be active in the body.

This is a double edged sword, because over-dreaming, as well as using up these hormones and energy, is actually making it harder for the body to make more. As you try to flush out the incomplete emotions, you spend more time in REM sleep, and therefore less time in deep sleep, when your body should be recuperating in preparation for producing these hormones for the next day.

So if you are over-dreaming you're not resting but flooding your system with adrenaline and other stress hormones. If most of your sleep consists of dreams, your body and mind will begin to feel very tired during the day. Depressed people often report that the worst time of day is first thing in the morning.

Sometimes a depressed person may start waking up early in the morning and not be able to get back to sleep. This may be a way of the body trying to cut down on over-dreaming in order to try and lift depression.

This depletion is also why depressed people often feel at their worst first thing in the morning.

As the day progresses, their hormones replenish themselves and their energy levels increase, and they are better able to motivate themselves.

Here's a more complete picture of how depression works:

Depression cycle complex

(Note: Levels of the stress hormone cortisol are much higher in depressed people.(1))

And because we can clearly see that what maintains the clinical symptoms of depression is emotionally arousing introspection, or rumination, we know exactly how to deal with it. Cut down the amount of emotional arousal.


Next article: Using The Cycle of Depression

  1. Nemeroff, C. B. (1998) The neurobiology of depression. Scientific American, 278, 6, 28–35. Other reference: Depression and dreams - Psychology Today

About the authors

Mark Tyrrell
Mark Tyrrell
Roger Elliott
Roger Elliott

The Depression Learning Path was created by Mark Tyrrell and Roger Elliott of Uncommon Knowledge. Mark and Roger have also written and recorded over 800 hypnosis sessions at Hypnosis Downloads, the web's busiest hypnosis site where you can get a cutting-edge hypnosis session for almost any situation.