There are a number of theories that explain depression from a genetic cause to environmental factors to an imbalance in specific neurotransmitters. There are a number of ways to conceptualize and work with depression. I will describe one approach here, the glass of water approach. I was first introduced to this approach by my supervisor during internship, a very skilled therapist. Before I go further, I have to emphasize that depression is complex, not every depressed person fits into what I describe below. Each person is unique.
Think of yourself as a glass of water, neither half-full nor half-empty. Now let's take a moment and focus on the actual water in the glass. The water is the accumulation of single drops of water. Think of each drop of water as a life experience. It doesn't have to be a major experience, it could be any experience. Anything from your first day of school to what you had for lunch. Both positive and negative experiences, they all accumulate in the glass. As you have more experiences, the water level rises, drop by drop.
For someone struggling with depression, the water in their glass has more drops of negative experiences than positive ones, or the impact of the negative experiences is greater than the impact of the positive. Sometimes that is actually the case and sometimes that is the perception. Part of therapy is determining whether the individual's perception is accurate or distorted. Let's assume accuracy, the depressed individual has more negative experiences than positive. So what can be done?
My approach is not to sugarcoat what has happened. Bad things happen in life, there is no getting around that. It's a part of life. For depressed individuals, It is often suggested to focus on the positive or to look at how the negative might be a positive. Sometimes this approach is effective, many times it is not. The glass of water approach acknowledges the negative experiences and focuses on how "drops" of positive experience can be added to the water in glass. The belief is that your experiences are real, they have shaped who you are. The negative experiences were painful. Let's focus on figuring out how positive experiences can be added to your glass.
A new positive experience does not replace a negative experience, but it may neutralize the impact of the negative experience. The more drops of positive experience into the glass of water, the less likely that the negative experience will have a profound, lasting impact.
For example, if you have a bad morning followed by a bad afternoon, you'll probably be in a bad mood that night. However, if you have a bad morning followed by a pleasant afternoon, you will probably be in a better mood than the previous example.
What is a positive experience? Simply, an experience that brings you happiness or joy. A potential hurdle, especially with depressed individuals, is they can truly feel there is no positive or pleasurable aspect of life. It's a huge challenge to even think about something positive.
A positive experience may be a non-negative experience. In that case, simply providing support and care may be the main focus of therapy, with occasional analysis of the depressive episode. One strategy is to explore what brought you pleasure before the depression arose (e.g., spending time with family and friends, alone time, exercising, music, reading, being outside, etc.). Talking about these experiences can ease the depression and bring about hope and some level of optimism.
So if you are struggling with depression, ask yourself what brings you joy, what eases the pain. If you are able to come up with a list or ideas, follow through with them.
This has been a simple description to a complex issue. For the sake of brevity, I kept this short. I hope no one was offended or thought that overcoming depression is always easy. That certainly was not my intent.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!