How our brain creates depression – and what does it mean for a cure?

Like my last post we are again looking for an explanation here that makes sense but more importantly shows us what we can do about depression. So there will be no talk of brain chemicals and neurotransmitters.

First we need to define something called Locus Of Control.

Locus Of Control? (“Location” of Control)

When we have a high internal locus of control towards a particular goal then we believe (subconsciously) that we are in control of the outcome. That if we work hard we will achieve a given goal. We are more motivated and much more resilient. We gain pleasure from working hard towards the goal. We feel energised. This increase in subconscious motivation outweighs other feelings too so we become less stressed from setbacks, we become more positive about being able to overcome problems. Everything seems easier.

This happens because you associate the goal with your chances of survival, prosperity and reproduction. From working towards your job to spending time strengthening social relationships. So as far as your emotional subconscious brain is concerned you are working towards a survival goal and your chances of achieving it are good so it is time and energy well spent. So you are privileged with high motivation and positivity.

The opposite is true when you feel like you have very little control over the outcome. This is sometimes known as an external locus of control as you believe the outcome is outside of your control, that there is no way you can make it happen. As a result you are much less motivated towards the goal. This makes sense, as there is no point spending time and energy trying to do something we don’t really believe is possible. You become a lot less resilient when trying to achieve this goal, everything feels like a lot of effort and you don’t even want to try. You become pessimistic and give up more easily. The task becomes less pleasurable. This saves you wasting energy on things that are impossible or unproducitve. Sometimes this low internal locus of control is referred to as “learned helplessness”.

It is goal specific – meaning for example you might have a high internal locus of control in relation to your ability to do your job but a low one towards losing weight on a diet. That would result in high motivation and enjoyment in work and low motivation to eat well.

So What Is Depression?

Notice something? Depression has the same symptoms as having a very low internal locus of control!! Low motivation, little resilience to overcome obstacles, lack of enjoyment from tasks and a pessimistic outlook. The difference is that depression makes you feel this way towards everything not just a specific goal.

So what’s going on? When you are depressed a particular part of your brain has decided you are no longer in control of ( = low internal locus of control) your ultimate goals – survival and reproduction. As survival and reproduction are our ultimate goals, everything else under that gets effected too. The only reason we are motivated to get up and go to work and socialise each day is because a part of our brain believes this aids in our survival. Once your brain no longer believes this you start to experience the low internal locus of control feeling towards everything. This isn’t your brain giving up on life, it has decided your current lifestyle isn’t working so you need to lose motivation towards it and have a big lifestyle overhaul. Your brain thinks you need to try a new lifestyle that will give you more control over your ability to survive.

In the unpredictable natural environment that we evolved in our best chance of survival was to be capable of withstanding the unexpected. That meant good health incase you get injured or infected one day, good fitness in case you need to withstand a lot of physical exertion, a good network of friends in case you need favours or protection. And more. Our outdated evolved brain doesn’t factor in that our survival is much safer in the developed world thanks to hospitals, the police, welfare systems and so on. It assumes that certain problems as small as a vitamin deficiency could become a matter of life or death in the medium to long-term future (within months or years) so it tries to force massive lifestyle change. By making you withdrawn from your current lifestyle.

Looking at the list from my first post Understanding Depression it is easy to see how these things that cause depression can also be seen as threats to our survival:

  • Vitamin Deficiencies
  • Poor Health
  • Long term illness like diabetes
  • Lack of friends and family to rely on in times of need
  • Victim of a bully
  • Poor fitness
  • High levels of stress
  • Lack of food (starvation)
  • Poor access to resources (money) / low social status
  • Putting too much effort in to a goal that is starting to appear unachievable

Why Should You Care?

We can counter the way our brain uses our locus of control to create depression, to help us alleviate depression in the short term (think 1 – 3 days at a time), feel better and get motivated, by building our internal locus of control. You can then use this increased motivation and resilience to engage in other anti-depression techniques like exercise, diet, going out to socialise more.

Building An Internal Locus of Control

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be one of the most effective “talking” therapies (although it’s not actually a talking therapy as most of the talking is training patients on how to use the CBT techniques). It involves training you to break down your current day-to-day problems and goals in to small more manageable chunks so you can tackle them. Essentially trying to directly undo the way depression reduces resilience, by helping you believe (subconsciously) you can achieve your goals. Convincing you that achieving your goals are within your (internal locus of) control. As well as writing down and breaking down goals you tick them off and monitor how you feel. This can further bolsters your perception that you have a high internal locus of control. These strategies are intended to be used daily if need be or whenever you encounter set backs.

You wont find much mention of Locus of Control if you research CBT. In my opinion it is a case of therapists finding something that works through trial and error without really knowing why it works. There is a lot about combating negative self talk within CBT too. I believe this negative self talk is largely a symptom of certain beliefs and it is the beliefs that contribute to depression, not the actual conscious negative self talk. Some negative self talk may results from the feelings of being unable to overcome obstacles, making you feel useless. This is a symptom of depression not a cause.

I will explore in future posts more streamlined and effective ways of creating the same benefits as CBT but based on the understanding of Locus Of Control I have discussed here. Like the goal setting used in CBT to convince your subconscious brain that you have the ability to achieve your goals, therefore increasing motivation and resilience. I’ll be exploring the parts of CBT that work in accordance with this understanding as well as things not included in CBT.

Parts of CBT that are relevant to improving Locus of Control:

  • Make goals
  • Break them down in to medium and small goals, and make the small goals detailed
  • Monitor your progress and see yourself ticking off goals and getting better at achieving them

Other ways of improving your Locus of Control:

  • Exposure to others that have achieved what you want to achieve – showing your brain that it can be done by people in similar circumstances
  • Having idols that have overcome adversity and mimicking their behavior
  • Studying skills and how-to information relevant to your goals to create the impression you can achieve your goals
  • Use of action plans and todo lists (ties in with goal setting)
  • Visualisation of you working towards your goals and succeeding
  • Setting and achieving milestones along the way

Let me know if you can think of any more methods for convincing your brain you can achieve a specific goal!

The different methods can be separated in to three categories – experiencing (achieving mini goals), witnessing (learning how to achieve your goal or about others that have achieved the goal), imagining (visualising achievement).

Although managing Locus of Control is a way of undoing some of the effects of depression you really need to stop the depression too if you really want to be in complete remission. That is why I recommend this stuff should be used to build motivation to do the other things like exercise and eating healthy.

Summary:

  • Depression occurs when you start to feel (subconsciously) that your survival and prosperity may be in jeopardy based on outdated evolved survival goals
  • Your brain then decides spending time and energy on your current life style is pointless as it believes it isn’t going well. In an attempt to force change.
  • As a result you lose all motivation towards your current lifestyle as well as other benefits that come with having a high internal “locus of control” like resilience and enjoyment
  • You can counter depression in relation to specific areas by manually rebuilding this internal locus of control
  • You should use this to help you fight your depression in key areas like fighting addictions or improving your lifestyle.

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