Is Depression a Habit?

“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time,” wrote Mark Twain.


Bad habits are made up of repetitive behaviors done over and over again.  In part, this is how depression comes into being.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in the documentary A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession, says “Depression is, above all else, a vicious circle.  People keep depressing because they don’t know any other way.”  A vicious circle is nothing more than vicious behaviors and thoughts done over and over again.  Depression has a self-perpetuating momentum that’s difficult to stop, even when sufferers try and try again to not get caught in depression’s snare.

Those with depression do not often see the way out of the depression because that can’t imagine what not being depressed feels or looks like. 

Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., author of Listening to Depression, writes:

“If you have been depressed for a long time, you may encounter the obstacle that you forgot what it feels like to be not depressed. Paradoxically, healing from depression may be uncomfortable to you because it may represent new territory for you. In this way, depression becomes like a habit, and may be hard to break. One way to prepare for this obstacle is to remind yourself that you deserve to be free from this habit and that you would rather be afraid than depressed. As in the fear of losing control, even positive changes will bring with them fear and a sense of losing control. As you bring awareness to the threat of changing your life, the choice you would make between comfortable depression and the unknown will be obvious.”  

“Comfortable”?  How dare she call depression comfortable.  But the habit of depression is comfortable in the sense that some would rather stay stuck in their own pain than risk the stress and anxiety that comes from trying to change depressive thinking and behaviors.

You can also think of depression as not so much one big habit, like smoking or eating fat-laden foods, but as a series on small-habits that congeal into depression; a concrete-like state where a life formerly lived now feels lifeless. 

A lawyer I know said one of his small habits was to be well-groomed and dressed when he walked out the door in the morning.  Now, this might sound a little superficial.  After all, what does neurochemistry have to do with sartorial style? Moreover, there are lots of depressed folks in the world who dress impeccably.  But what he was trying to say was that, for him, letting himself go, not shaving and not caring what he wore, was a small a habit that made him feel worse about himself – a no-no for those who are prone to depression. It a way, it was one of many small triggers that help trigger his depression.

Well-known author Deepak Chopra writes:

“Once it turns into a habit, depressed people no longer need an outside trigger.  They are depressed about being depressed.  A gray film coats everything: optimism is impossible.  This defeated state tells us that the brain has formed fixed pathways.  A small incident like a flat tire or a bounced check leaves no room for deciding, ‘Is this going to bother me or not?’  Instead, the depressed response is already wired in.  Depressed people can even feel sad about good events (they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop) because they are trapped in the habit of depression at the brain level.

Depression also has its addictive side, in that sadness and hopelessness take charge. ‘I can’t be any other way’ is the common cry of the chronically depressed. In every case, there’s a ‘good me’ and a ‘bad me’ warring against each other. For the depressed person, the ‘bad me’ is sad and hopeless while the ‘good me’ is happy and optimistic. But, in truth, both sides are the ‘bad me’ because it casts its shadow over everything. The best moments are a prelude to a relapse. The ‘bad me’ is going to win in the end; the ‘good me’ is merely its pawn.”

Turning It Around

In a fascinating new book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that the key to changing habits is to stop fighting them. Albeit Duhigg’s book does not specifically address depression, it is instructive.  “We all have habits,” says Duhigg.  “The key is to shift habits to the behaviors that I want.”  How in the world do we do that?  Duhigg elaborates:  

“Most people think of habit as a routine, but it’s actually a cue, a routine, and a reward.  Let’s say you want to create an exercise habit, like running.  Study after study has shown that the best way to do this is to choose a cue – a certain pattern of behavior, like putting on your running shoes next to your bed each night – and then to give yourself a reward.  So as so as you get home from running, eat a piece of chocolate.  The cue and the reward become interrelated, so when you see that cue, your brain begins expecting the reward.  In fact, it’s going to start enjoying that reward even before it’s delivered, and that’s what will push you into the behavior.”

But it isn’t quite that simple.  The book goes onto explain that this simple cue, routine and reward is only the beginning of a process of change. To take the example of running and chocolate above, as we keeping running over time, we exchange the reward of Ghirardelli dark chocolate squares for the more the deeper and more psychological reward of proving to yourself that you’re the type of person who habitually runs.

My routine to get me to exercise? I put my gym bag in my truck the night before.  I then get up the next morning, don’t shower or shave and drive off to the gym.  I can’t go directly to work looking like a slob so I now have to go to the gym.  Simple as this sounds, it really does work.  And I see myself as a person who takes care of himself and gets things done.  I’ve used the power of habit to build a good routine instead of a bad one.

Good habits make us feel empowered.  This is important for a person struggling with depression to learn or remember because they so often experience themselves as disempowered, lazy or incapable of doing something positive for themselves. 

Starting new, constructive routines and rewards is just one way to climb out of the well of depression.  But an important one. Get started today building your own positive habits and routines.

Need some ideas about good habits to help you heal from depression?

Check out Dr. Andrew Weil’s excellent webpage which addresses healthy habits to develop or his more comprehensive book Spontaneous Happiness in which he writes about his own struggles with depression.  Also pick up Get It Done When You’re Depressed by Julie Fast.



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