Los Angeles Chapter  California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists

Los Angeles Chapter — CAMFT

LA-CAMFT Member Article

03/31/2020 10:30 AM | Mike Johnsen (Administrator)
Amy McManus

Amy McManus, LMFT

Can You Depression-Proof Your Life?

The Depression Vaccine
Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., Director of The Combined Clinical and School Psychology Doctoral Program at James Madison University, posits that depression is “a state of behavioral shutdown,” rather than a “disease of the brain.”

Henriques tells us, “Depression can emerge as a state of shutdown when we perceive a lack of opportunities for positive investment in a world full of threats.” He calls this framework the Behavioral Shutdown Model (BSM).

How Does the BSM Work?
Animals behave in a way that maximizes their benefit to cost ratio. This happens in 2 ways: 1. Maximizing benefit, and 2. Minimizing cost. Humans are no different.

Maximizing Benefits:
When we are full of positive psychic energy, we work to maximize benefits. We work hard to get that promotion, find that partner, learn that skill or sport.

Minimizing Costs:
When we are in a state of low psychic energy, we work instead to minimize cost. Animals do this also—they hibernate, they sleep, they rest from exhaustion. When we work to minimize psychic cost, the result can be depression.

We shut down in response to our perception of the world as a place that is dangerous, or where we can’t possibly succeed. This leads to a downshift in mood, and begins the cycle that leads us into the cave of depression.

The Healthy Response to Behavioral Shutdown
Behavioral shutdown, rather than being automatically diagnosed as clinical depression, can simply be a signal to pay attention to the critical components that need to be addressed in order to feel safe enough to begin the cycle of behavioral engagement.

Why We Get Depressed:
Henriques gives specific reasons why depression rates have been skyrocketing, especially among young people:

1. Modern Lifestyles
Our bodies and our minds are adapted to work best in closely-connected social groups, but society today is isolating and emphasizes the individual over the group.

2. Adverse Life Events
Things sometimes happen that seem overwhelmingly negative and we can’t see any way out. This makes us more likely to be depressed.

3. Individual Differences
Some people simply have a lower set point for mood.

4. Poor Coping Skills
People who naturally cope by avoiding problems, or by forming negative opinions about themselves are more likely to become depressed.

How Do We Get Out of This Cycle?
Two of the most important things that will get one out of this downward spiral into depression are

1. An attitude of hope, and 2. Willingness to expend effort. Unfortunately, as we therapists well know, these two things are extremely hard to do if you are already feeling depressed.

So How Can We Help?
The best thing we can do is to help our clients address the above four areas prophylactically—or, at the very least, before they have spiraled too far into what Henriques refers to as “the cave of depression”.

It makes good sense for us to check that all of our clients are addressing the four areas that can lead to depression, and that we teach them to recognize when they start to slip so they can catch themselves and course-correct.

Here are the tools we can give our clients to address the four areas of vulnerability:

  1. Stay Connected.
    In a society where isolation is the norm, we need to encourage our clients to continue to build social connections. Go to lunch or drinks with co-workers, engage in a sport or hobby, join a political group, go to alumni events, join a club, go to a “meet-up,” host a dinner, volunteer, have regular Skype dates with distant friends or family.

  2. Be Prepared for the Slings and Arrows.
    Make sure your clients know that when adverse life events occur, reaching out to others for help is the healthiest thing to do. Most of my clients balk at first when I suggest this, but when they think about how rewarding it is when they help others, they realized that it is also rewarding for others to help them when they are in distress.

    It is also important to consistently reinforce the skills your client does have, so that when life gets tough, and they start to spiral down, you can remind them of their ability to problem-solve, and how they have used it in various situations. This will give them more of a sense of power and control in a situation that might otherwise be making them feel powerless or hopeless.

  3. Be Aware of Your Set Point.
    Help your clients understand that different people have different setpoints, and there is no shame if their set point is lower than their partner’s or their best friend’s. They just need to be aware of their vulnerability, and plan accordingly. Psycho-education is especially important to self-esteem for clients who have very low setpoints.

  4. Be Confident.
    Have your clients practice problem-solving so that they are more confident solving bigger and bigger problems. Hold them accountable for addressing successively harder problems, and use modalities like CBT that are known to help clients improve a negative self image.
Henriques reminds us that behavioral shutdown is a biologically-programmed logical response to certain life situations and events. It doesn’t need to become clinical depression if this response is properly addressed and is also appropriately responsive when the situation improves.

The BSM reminds us that teaching clients to “depression-proof” their lives is something we should keep in mind for all of our clients, since the environmental factors that can lead to depression affect all of us at some point in our lives. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to keep these skills in mind for ourselves, as well!

Amy McManus, LMFT, helps anxious young adults build healthy new relationships with themselves and others after a breakup. Amy’s blog, “Life Hacks,” offers practical tips for thriving in today’s crazy plugged-in world. Learn more about Amy from her website www.thrivetherapyla.com.

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