By Margaret Wehrenberg

The natural antidepressant impact of using the depressed tendency to ruminate to strengthen networks of positive experience

I was recently out with my 6-year-old grandson (I know, how lucky can a person be?), and as we returned to our car, a family in the parking lot was clearly trying to start a very dead car. They were international visitors with a rental car and without a phone for domestic calls. We offered use of our phone and made a suggestion about finding jumper cables from the parking lot security office, which turned out to work well. Problem solved. Handshakes and smiles. Everyone happy.

As we drove away, my grandson was doing the 6 year old version of integrating the experience. “We would never, ever walk away from someone who needed help. Except bullies. Or robbers.” That made me smile for many reasons. He learned about how good it feels to help just for doing of it. He saw us as a family with a code of honor to help people in need. His exceptions to the code were so typical of a boy in elementary school: bullies and robbers.

But then I thought about how our brains process experiences. We try to find similarities and differences between one experience and another. It helps us be brain-efficient to have categories in which to put things: good/bad, tasty/icky, fun/not fun, worth it/not worth it, likely to succeed/likely to fail. I know phrasing it in that binary way is simplistic compared to how our complex brains form networks of similarities and differences. But it demonstrates how we begin the sorting out of experience. We start down a path and branch immediately into complex networks of related information.

Our brains connect information in networks. And those networks hold vast amounts of interconnected data. When a person branches into a network of “not good,” then other “not good” data is brought to attention. So if you think about a failure that just occurred, other times of failure will be brought to awareness, even if nothing in the situations were similar beyond the fact of failing, or perhaps the emotion of failing.

What does all this have to do with depression? Because, when a person is depressed, there is a tendency of the brain to get stuck or ruminative. When we are depressed, it is too easy to enter into a network related to a thought or an event and then find it really hard to get out of that network. And that original network is, not surprisingly, often about negative issues.

Why does a depressed brain go to the negative? A really important aspect of processing experiences includes noting exceptions, or unexpected outcomes. I think about my grandson, processing what had been a positive experience. In forming categories for it, it occurred to him that sometimes helping people you do not know could also have negative consequences. What if they were bullies? Or robbers? Our brains need to know what is different as well as similar. In depression, the noting of exceptions typically ranges to the negative outcomes: why something won’t work the next time or why it won’t be good (or fun, or worthwhile or even just “for the best”). In depression, there is a brain quality of being stuck. In a way, you could view this as being in a type of protective mode of looking out for risk, threat, or failure. The low mood of depression is, in some respects, a mental preparation to handle an upcoming problem.

The problem with depression is that the brain gets stuck there. Unable to generate much in the way of positives and unable to shift off the ‘potential’ in ‘potential problem’. The longer focus stays on potential negatives, the more real they seem, and the more that negative is ruminated upon, the stronger it gets. The network has time to form and connect strongly to similar negative expectations. If my grandson stayed focused too long on whether people in need could be bullies or robbers, he would develop a longer and longer list of people whom he would not want to help or situations that could turn dangerous. Now, you might be saying, “Well, that is protective,” and I would agree. However, it could lead him away from the other part of processing the experience: we help people in need.

Focused on that part of the ‘Family Code’ that is positive, he can enter the network of times when helping is good and the outcome is worthwhile. Strengthening the recall of those prior experiences and practicing in his mind the potential positive outcome of a future chance to lend a helping hand is as necessary to forming his identity as rehearsing when it is not a good idea to help. And if he does not make that positive network strong by repetition, he will miss the smiles, the handshakes and the really good feeling he will get for being helpful to someone. Those lovely outcomes make a positive network that can be entered into and deliberately ruminated upon, getting stronger and stronger; thus, leading to optimism, positive self-esteem and genuine reward from being helpful.

So, one natural anti-depressant is to find and deliberately rehearse all the positive potential of a recent-past or near-future experience. As best as possible, delay the negative and strengthen the depressed brain’s positive network on purpose. The stronger it gets, the easier it is to get into and stay on the positive side.