The Role of Anger in Depression

Sigmund Freud used to refer to depression as anger turned inward. While many people may regard this as an overly simplistic approach to the most common mental health disorder in the world, there is no doubt that anger plays a significant role in depression. As one study from 2016 found, when it comes to emotional disorders in general, the presence of anger has “negative consequences, including greater symptom severity and worse treatment response.” Researchers concluded that “based on this evidence, anger appears to be an important and understudied emotion in the development, maintenance, and treatment of emotional disorders.” When it comes specifically to depression, science seems to be further supporting Freud’s theory, showing more and more how anger contributes to symptoms. A UK study from 2013 suggested that going inward and turning our anger on ourselves contributes to the severity of depression.

Having worked with depressed clients for more than 30 years, these findings were not surprising to me. Many of the people I’ve worked with who struggle with depression also share the common struggle of turning their anger on themselves. As much as I try to help my clients express their anger rather than take it on and turn it inward, I witness first-hand how hard it often is for people to interrupt this process. It’s a challenge for them to recognize the nasty way they treat themselves; they are significantly more critical of themselves that they are of others.

People who suffer from depression often have intense “critical inner voices” that perpetuate feelings of unworthiness and shame. When they listen to this inner critic, they not only feel more depressed, but they also find it much more difficult to stand up to their depression. This includes acting against their critical inner voices, taking positive actions that could help them feel better about themselves (like engaging in activities they enjoy), and being more social.

Getting angry at these “voices” can be liberating, but that means getting in touch with our core feelings of anger rather than aiming it at ourselves. Dr. Les Greenberg, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, describes an important difference between adaptive anger and nonadaptive anger. Anger is an adaptive response when it motivates you to assertive action to end a violation. For example, when we may feel angry at the cruel way we treat ourselves today, we’re in touch with our adaptive anger, and we feel like we’re on our own side. Letting ourselves feel and express adaptive anger can help us feel less burdened, freer, and more in touch with our real self.

Maladaptive anger, on the other hand, affects us negatively. For one thing, it can contribute to feeling victimized, sulky, or stuck in a feeling of being wronged. Examples of maladaptive anger turned inward can include feeling overly critical toward ourselves, hating ourselves, or seeing ourselves as powerless, pathetic, or helpless. The generally dysfunctional responses that result from maladaptive anger are based on emotional schema from traumatic experiences in our past. Often, our critical inner voice is at the root of maladaptive anger, driving us to remain in a state of frustration and suffering.

We can almost feel the difference between maladaptive anger dragging us down and deeper into a state of anxiety or depression and adaptive anger relieving us of a heavy burden, lightening us emotionally, and contributing to our taking constructive actions. While it can feel scary to face these deeper, core emotions, we must access adaptive emotions to transform our maladaptive emotions. This can be a vital process in helping us deal with depression.

One study by Dr. Greenberg showed that Emotionally Focused Therapy can transform maladaptive emotion through the process of expressing it and eliciting the response of an adaptive emotion, i.e. adaptive anger. This approach was especially effective in improving depressive symptoms, interpersonal distress, and self-esteem. As Dr. Greenberg described it, the process “aims within an affectively attuned empathic relationship to access and transform habitual maladaptive emotional schematic memories [articulated as critical inner voices] that are seen as the source of the depression.” Transforming these maladaptive emotions may, therefore, be one of the keys to fighting depression.

Our approach to transforming anger turned inward, which has some similarities to Greenberg’s approach, is to have the person verbalize their critical inner voices as though someone else was telling them these angry thoughts. We also encourage the person to express the feeling behind the thoughts. Often, when people do this, they express a lot of rage toward self. By saying the thoughts in the second person (as “you” statements), they begin to get some separation from their harsh, critical attitudes, and often have insights about where these thoughts come from. It sets the stage for them “answering back” to these attacks and taking their own side. The goal is also to help the person develop more self-compassion and a kinder, more realistic point of view toward themselves.

As we externalize our negative thoughts and the accompanying anger, we can better stand up to our inner critic and take a compassionate stance toward ourselves, treating ourselves as we would treat a friend. This doesn’t mean denying our struggles and setbacks, but it does mean embracing the practice of self-compassion. Self-compassion, as defined by researcher Kristin Neff, involves three key elements: self-kindness, mindfulness, and awareness of common humanity. Research has shown that the practice of self-compassion can significantly reduce a depressed mood. As one study pointed out, maladaptive or irrational beliefs underlie the development of depression, however, when high levels of self-compassion helped to counteract these negative thoughts, there was no longer a significant relationship between irrational beliefs and depression. This same study showed that it is “especially the self-kindness component of self-compassion that moderated the irrational belief-depression relationship.” Thus, the primary aim for someone struggling with resolving their emotions around depression is to treat themselves and regard their feelings the way they would a friend. It’s not about feeling sorry for ourselves, but about feeling strong and worthy and less afraid to make mistakes.

Ultimately, accepting that anger plays a role in our depression should be an empowering tool in our fight to feel better. When people express anger outwards in a healthy adaptive manner, they feel less depressed. Accessing and expressing this anger isn’t a matter of acting out, being explosive, or feeling bitter toward our surroundings. In fact, it means exactly the opposite. It’s an act of standing up for ourselves and accepting that we are not who our “voices” are telling us we are. It’s a process of facing up to the things that hurt us but also facing off against the inner enemy we all possess that drives us deeper into our suffering. The more we can take our own side and resist our tendency to turn our anger on ourselves, the more compassionate and alive we can feel in facing any challenge, including depression.

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association. She studies suicide and violence as well as couples and family relations. Firestone is the co-author (with Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett) of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion, and Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships. Firestone speaks frequently at conferences including the APA, the International Association of Forensic Psychology, International Association of Suicide Prevention, the Department of Defense and many others. She has also appeared in more than 300 radio, TV, and print interviews including the BBC, CBC, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, Psychology Today, Men’s Health and O Magazine.

 

 

How to Stay Positive (Even When You’re Struggling With Depression)

Blogger Ashley Trexler writes, “I wanted her to be a fighter, to always look for the best in others, to fall down and get back up again—and again, and again. I decided to be an optimist not just for myself, but for my child.It’s a struggle to stay positive, and pessimism desperately wants to be BFFs. My negative alter-ego is always sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, “Isn’t life unfair?” Read the rest of her blog here.

 

How to Prevent Stress From Shrinking Your Brain

 

Have you ever felt so stressed out and overwhelmed that you can’t think straight? We now know that prolonged stress or trauma is associated with decreased volume in areas of the human brain responsible for regulating thoughts and feelings, enhancing self-control, and creating new memories. A new research study, published in today’s issue of Nature Medicine, is a first step in uncovering the genetic mechanism underlying these brain changes.

Depressed People’s Brains are More FragmentedIn this study, conducted by Professor Richard Dumin and colleagues from Yale University, scientists compared the genetic makeup of donated brain tissue from deceased humans with and without major depression. Only the depressed patients’ brain tissues showed activation of a particular genetic transcription factor, or “switch.” While each human cell contains more than 20,000 genes, only a tiny fraction of them are expressed at a given time. Transcription factors, when activated, act like light switches, causing genes to be turned on or off. This transcription factor, known as GATA1, switches off the activity of five genes necessary for forming synaptic connections between brain neurons. Brain neurons or nerve cells contain branches or dendrites that send and receive signals from other cells, leading to interconnected networks of emotion and cognition. The scientists hypothesized that in the depressed patients’ brains, prolonged stress exposure led to a disruption of brain systems involved in thinking and feeling. Depressed brains appeared to have more limited and fragmented information processing abilities. This finding may explain the pattern of repetitive negative thinking that depressed people exhibit. It is as if their brains get stuck in a negative groove of self-criticism and pessimism. They are unable to envision more positive outcomes or more compassionate interpretations of their actions.

Glucocorticoids Damage Brain Neurons 

The stress response involves activation of a brain region known as the amygdala, which sends a signal alerting the organism to the threat. This results in activation of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and release of a cascade of hormones, including cortisol, widely regarded as the quintessential “stress hormone.” While short-term cortisol release prepares the organism to sustain “fight or flight” and fend off an attacker, long-term exposure appears to cause brain neurons to shrink and interferes with their ability to send and receive information via branches called dendrites. In animal studies, under chronically stressful conditions, glucocorticoids such as cortisol can remain elevated for long periods.

Traumatic Experiences Can Shrink the Hippocampus in Those Who Don’t Recover

This finding is another piece of the puzzle regarding how stress and prolonged distress may impair our ability to think in creative and flexible ways. Research in both mice and humans has demonstrated an association between stress exposure (foot shock in mice, life events in humans) and shrinking of the hippocampus – the brain center responsible for forming new, time-sequenced memories. Studies in women with PTSD resulting from childhood sexual abuse and Vietnam veterans with PTSD have shown 12-26 percent decreases in hippocampal volume, relative to those without PTSD. In another study, patients recovered from long-term major depression showed a 15 percent decrease in volume of the hippocampus, compared to non-depressed patients.

Major Life Stress Damages the Prefrontal Cortex

In addition to hippocampal shrinkage, major life stress may shrink brain neurons in the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the brain area responsible for problem-solving, adaptation to challenge, emotional processing and regulation, impulse control, and regulation of glucose and insulin metabolism. In a study of 100 healthy participants conducted by Dr. Rajita Sinha and colleagues at Yale University, and published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, those with more adverse life events had greater shrinkage of gray matter in the PFC, compared to their less-stressed peers. Recent major life events, such as a job loss, make people less emotionally aware while life traumas, such as sexual abuse, seem to go further, in damaging mood centers that regulate pleasure and reward, increasing vulnerability to addiction and decreasing the brain’s ability to bounce back.

Summary 

While the evidence is not yet conclusive, these studies suggest that prolonged exposure to stress can shrink the brain, both via the damaging effects of cortisol on brain neurons and by disrupting expression of genes that facilitate neuronal connections. This raises the question of whether there is anything we can do to prevent such damage. Since we can’t always control how much we are exposed to financial, relationship, or illness stress, are there preventive activities we can do to maintain cognitive resilience so we can continue to deal effectively with the stressors? It is not known if we can reverse the damage by these methods, but we may lessen it and make our brains more resilient to stress.

Brain-Enhancing Activities to Combat Stress

While the below list is not exhaustive, the three activities below have enhanced brain functioning in controlled studies.

Take a Daily DHA Supplement – DHA or Docosahexaenoic acid is an Omega-3 fatty acid that is a central building block of brain tissue. DHA is thought to combat the inflammatory effects of cortisol and the plaque buildup associated with vulnerability to Alzheimer’s disease. According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, in one study, a dose of 600mg of DHA taken daily for 6 months led the brain to perform as if it were three years younger.

Exercise Most Days – In studies with mice exercise led to a more improved performance on cognitive tasks than exposure to enriched environments with lots of activities and stimulation. Exercise leads to increases in BDNF or brain-derived neurotropic factor, a substance that strengthens brain cells and neuronal connections. BDNF is also thought to promote neurogenesis or the creation of new brain cells from existing stem cells in the hippocampus. Although these effects can’t be studied in living human brains, researchers have found increases in BDNF in the bloodstream of humans following workouts.

Do Yoga, Meditate, or Pray – These activities can activate what scientist Herb Benson at Massachusetts General Hospital calls “the relaxation response,” which lowers blood pressure and heart rate and lowers subjective anxiety. Benson and scientists from a genetics institute showed, in a recent study, that inducing the relaxation response can beneficially alter the expression of genes involved in inflammation, programmed cell death and how the body handles free radicals. The effects shown were in the same genes implicated in PTSD and depression. According to Jeffery Dusek, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study, “Changes in the activation of these same genes have previously been seen in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder; but the relaxation-response-associated changes were the opposite of stress-associated changes and were much more pronounced in the long-term practitioners.”

About the Author

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and expert on Mindfulness and Positive Psychology.  Dr. Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations,  life, weight loss, or career coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. Visit her website: http://www.drmelaniegreenberg.biz

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.

 

3 Practices for Letting Go of Looping Thoughts

Jenna Cho, lawyer and author of the book, “The Anxious Lawyer” writes, “The ability to gently let go of negative looping thoughts has been perhaps one of the most powerful and unexpected benefits of having a regular meditation practice. Research indicates that meditation can help us process and decrease the impact of negative emotions, such as anger. If you find yourself stuck in an endless negative thought loop, here are three practices that you may find useful.” Read the entire blog here.

The Bald-Faced Lies Depression Tells Us: Part 1

Whatever the cause, clinical depression sufferers are often shackled to a prison of ruminative, negative thoughts about the world and themselves.

They are full of self-loathing, feelings of worthlessness, and a sense of failure.  Confidence in their ability to build and maintain successful relationships is eroded.  Their sense of competency about their work can plummet as they struggle to get things done, be productive and earn a living. Some may even hate themselves when lost in this destructive process.

If that weren’t tough enough, are brains actually work against in this negative spiral. Psychologist Margaret Wehrenberg writes:

“Brain function plays a role in rumination in several ways, but one significant aspect

10 Ways Our Thinking Can Fuel Depression and Anxiety

Psychologist Elvira Aletta writes, “Right now, you and I can see clearly how those thoughts are exaggerated, over-the-top, unreasonable. It’s not so easy to see when we are caught up in the moment. Luckily, to make this task easier for us, Dr David Burns did a lot of work categorizing ten basic ways we distort our thinking. Study these categories. Highlight the ones you tend to use. Think of your own real life examples”.  Read her Blog

With Depression, Sometimes it Pays to Be Patient

Blogger Therese Borchard writes, “The harder you try, the more negative things can get. A study published in August 2007 in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that there was a breakdown in normal patterns of emotional processing that prevented depressed and anxious people from suppressing negative emotions. In fact, the more they tried, the more they activated the fear center of their brain — the amygdala — which fed them more negative messages.” Read the Blog

Treating Anxiety & Depression With a Smartphone App

Two English universities have joined forces to assess how a new smartphone app can help people manage their psychological issues. The Catch It app uses some of the key principles of psychological approaches to mental health and well-being, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), according to researchers.  Read the News

5 Ways to Free Yourself From Dark and Obsessive Thoughts

Depression blogger Therese Borchard writes, “Stuck thoughts. Painful ruminations. Unrelenting obsessions. They are the curse of depression — among the most excruciating symptoms, in my opinion.  More than any other symptom of my depression — more so even than unrestrained tears and bawling my eyes out in public — the stuck thoughts make me feel truly insane, scared to be living inside my body and mind.”  Check out her 5 ways to help loosen depression’s grip. Read her Blog

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