Recovery from Depression: The Power of Expectation

Recovery from depression depends in part on what you believe is possible for the future. If you are to recover at all, you have to take action at some point. It could be a series of small steps about your daily routine – eating breakfast, walking out the door to get fresh air and natural light, making a point of talking to someone each day.

Or it could be much larger, like going to a psychiatrist and starting treatment, regularly meditating, exercising frequently, taking long walks. Whatever it is, you need to feel motivated to overcome the inertia, to stop the loss of warming energy to the cold stillness of depression.

To feel motivation, you need to believe, however tentatively, that you can change for the better, to expect recovery from the worst symptoms. You’re likely to hit a lot of barriers, though, that make it hard to keep up positive expectations.

When you expect to fail, it often happens that you stop taking action to help yourself recover. The deeply ingrained habits of depressive thinking and belief can quickly take over. You might start making rules and setting goals.

If recovery is not total and permanent, it’s not recovery. Treatments can’t fail, depression relapse can’t happen. You can’t be recovered if you’re still on medication. You have to get better in six months or a year, or some fixed period of time.

Of course, the rules and goals are entirely your invention, but they’re part of the expectations you feel in your gut. If you can’t meet them, the disappointment confirms your deepest conviction that you can never succeed.

Lawyer Depression is Contagious

Catch a depressed mood the way you catch a cold? Not exactly . . . but similar. Can other people really be a source of the rising rate of depression in the United States? The scientific evidence suggests the answer is yes. Our social lives play a huge role in how we think and feel. After all, none of us are immune to the influence of others, for better or worse. How we react to others, and vice-versa, even has a measurable biological impact on our brain chemistry, as our newest brain research shows us. The evidence is rapidly mounting that depression is about much more than just an individual’s “bad chemistry.” Thinking of depression as a brain disease is proving to be too one-dimensional a perspective.

For attorneys, appreciating the social connection to depression is vital if the person is to be viewed – – and responded to – – realistically. Why are attorneys depressed? Go beyond biology as the cause and consider that law is a profession that:
• Often requires engaging in stressful, conflictual relationships.
• Often pressured by important and inflexible deadlines.
• Often is devalued by the general public and even may be misunderstood by friends and family.
• Often brings you into contact with some of the worst aspects of human nature.
• Encourages hazardous self-sacrifice for “the cause.”
• Encourages deceiving others as well as one’s self, a moral compass, in the push for maximizing   billable hours.
• Demands full commitment to making efforts to achieve things one has no control over.
• Encourages rumination, a poor coping mechanism.
• Can sometimes be almost as costly in winning as in losing, increasing uncertainty about what’s best.
• Can be as emotionally high and low as professional sports (“the thrill of victory . . . the agony of defeat.”)

The social aspects of depression have been too long ignored in favor of biological explanations. It would be more helpful to come to terms with the reality that no amount of medication will make potentially depressing situations, like the stressful aspect of practicing law, go away.
The rising rate of depression is not unique to either Americans or lawyers, lending further support to the growing recognition of depression being spread across boarders through social means. Through the studies of cultures, families, and the social lives of depressed people, we have learned a great deal about the social transmission of depression. Negative people can bring us down and good relationships involving an enduring commitment can bring us up. We have also learned how children model their parents in unexpected ways that increase their vulnerability to depression. Thus, in a purely social sense, depression is contagious.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is the international watchdog of health issues around the world. Recently, WHO declared depression the fourth greatest cause of human suffering and disability in the world (behind heart disease, cancer and traffic accidents). The WHO statement tells us how prevalent and how serious depression is right now. Even more troubling, though, is the WHO prediction that by the year 2020 depression will have risen to become the second greatest cause of human disability and suffering. It is a safe prediction for WHO to make, for we already have a half-century worth of data showing that depression has steadily been on the rise for decades.

By focusing on biology alone, as we have done when we talk about chemical imbalances in the brain or calling depression a “disease,” the social dimension has been all but ignored. This allows the social conditions that cause and exacerbate depression in many people’s lives to go unaddressed. Drugs alone cannot address the social factors that underlie depression, a likely reason that drug treatment alone (without additional skill-building) has the highest rate of relapse of any form of intervention. Just as there will never be a pill that can cure our other social issues such as poverty or racisim, there will never be a pill that will cure the depression that is associated with challenging life conditions. This is not to say biology doesn’t matter. It clearly does. But to focus on biology to the exclusion of life’s circumstances, especially the social ones, that lead people in general, and attorneys in particular into depression, is missing a vital target of intervention. Too often, well-intentioned doctors write a prescription for an anti-depressant medication but go no further into treatment. The evidence is growing that this practice is, to put it mildly, less than ideal.

The new understandings about the prominence of social forces in depression require we as mental health professionals to change some of what we do as we try to educate people about depression. The familiar phrasing that suggests “depression is a serious medical illness requiring medication” is an educational approach it that clearly doesn’t work very well. Most of the attorneys who are depressed don’t seek help. For some, it’s because of the stigma of seeking help for an emotional disorder, but for others it’s because they simply don’t think of themselves as “diseased.” They may feel stressed, unhappy, overwhelmed, trapped, or hopeless but they don’t consider themselves “depressed.” In fact, most of the attorneys who suffer depression, still manage to function despite their condition. They show up for work, they give their clients reasonably good legal advice, they get their briefs filed on time, and they participate in family events. But, they are struggling to get through each day. They are what many clinicians refer to as the “walking wounded.”

We can do better than suggest to people they’re diseased and need drug care. Who can do more than continue to push the one-dimensional biological explanation at people for their depression? We can help them understand that depression is caused by many contributing factors of which some are indeed biological, while others are rooted in individual psychology (such as your temperament and style of coping with stress) and social psychology (such as the quality of your relationships and your culturally acquired views). Striving to convince people they’re diseased doesn’t empower them to actively change their lives in meaningful ways. We can teach better relationship skills, better problem-solving skills, better decision-making skills, and better ways to cope with an increasingly complex world. We can teach attorneys-to-be while still in law school how to develop realistic perceptions of life as a lawyer so they won’t get so disillusioned they flee the practice of law so soon after graduating. These are just some of the skills that have not only been shown to reduce depression, but even to prevent it.

Editor’s Note: Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and depression expert from Fallbrook, California. He is the author of Depression is Contagious: How the Most Common Mood Disorder is Spreading Around the World and How to Stop It. For more information visit his website at



Dan’s Top Ten Depression Books

Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.

This is the best book I’ve read on depression.  Perhaps it’s more compelling than most books on this subject because Richard O’Connor, a therapist in New York City, has gone through major bouts of depression himself.  Depression has often been compared to heart disease; an illness fueled by complex and interrelated factors: genetic, biochemical, environmental.  In this book, O’Connor focuses on an additional factor often overlooked: our own habits. Unwittingly, we get good at depression.  This book teaches us how to replace depressive patterns with a new and more effective set of skills. We already know how to “do” depression. And we can learn how to “undo” it. With a truly holistic approach that synthesizes the best of the many schools of thought about this painful condition, this book offers new hope, and new life, for sufferers of depression.  Go to Dr. O’Connor’s website  

The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon

Winner of The National Book Award following its release a decade ago, this is a beautifully written book by depression sufferer, Andrew Solomon.  Drawing on his own struggles with the illness and interviews with fellow sufferers, doctors and scientists, policy makers and politicians, drug designers and philosophers, Solomon reveals the subtle complexities and sheer agony of the disease. With uncommon humanity, candor, wit, and erudition, he not only helps us understand depression, but also the human condition. Go to Andrew Solomon’s website to read a chapter

The Mindful Way through Depression – J. Mark Williams, Ph.D.

Mindfulness, a simple yet powerful way of paying attention to your most difficult emotions and life experiences, can help you break the cycle of chronic unhappiness once and for all.  It seems like every few days, there is a new book or article out on the power of mindfulness. Here, four uniquely qualified experts explain why our usual attempts to “think” our way out of a bad mood or just “snap out of it” lead us deeper into the downward spiral. Through insightful lessons drawn from both Eastern meditative traditions and cognitive therapy, they demonstrate how to sidestep the mental habits that lead to despair, including rumination and self-blame, so you can face life’s challenges with greater resilience. Jon Kabat-Zinn gently and encouragingly narrates the accompanying CD of guided meditations, making this a complete package for anyone seeking to regain a sense of hope and well-being.  Go to a review and summary of this book

Listening to Depression – Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D.

I first read this book five years ago and was struck by its originality:  depression isn’t just a disease to be fixed with medication and therapy, but a warning signal that our lives are off track and needs to be healed.  In this sense, depression and its painful symptoms is a sort of unwelcome wisdom. Dr. Honos-Webb argues that we too often try to cut off or numb our feelings of depression instead of listening carefully to what they are telling us about our lives. Listening to Depression offers insightful ways to reframe depression as a gift that can help you transform your life for the better.  Go to an interview with Dr. Honos-Webb

Lincoln’s Melancholy – Joshua Wolf Shenk 

I am a little biased here.  I am a lawyer and Lincoln is my hero.  He not only was a great trial lawyer, but also struggled with depression his entire life. Giving shape to the deep depression that pervaded Lincoln’s adult life, Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy reveals how this illness influenced both the president’s character and his leadership. Lincoln forged a hard path toward mental health from the time he was a young man. Shenk draws from historical record, interviews with Lincoln scholars, and contemporary research on depression to understand the nature of his unhappiness. In the process, he discovers that the President’s coping strategies—among them, a rich sense of humor and a tendency toward quiet reflection—ultimately helped him to lead the nation through its greatest turmoil.  Go to the author’s excellent website about the book

Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression – James S. Gordon, M.D.

One of our country’s most distinguished psychiatrists and a pioneer in integrative medicine, Dr. Gordon believes that depression is not an end point, a disease over which we have no control. It is a sign that our lives are out of balance, that we’re stuck. It’s a wake-up call and the start of a journey that can help us become whole and happy, one that can change and transform our lives. Unstuck is a practical, easy to use guide explaining the seven stages of Dr. Gordon’s approach and the steps we can take to exert control over our own lives and find hope and happiness. Unstuck is designed for anyone who is suffering from depression, from mild subclinical depression (“the blues”) to its severest forms. Go to this PBS television intereview with Dr. Gordon

Unholy Ghosts: Writers on Depression – Nell Casey

The only book of its kind, Unholy Ghost is a unique collection of essays about depression that, in the spirit of noveliest William Styron’s Darkness Visible. Unlike any other memoir of depression, however, Unholy Ghost includes many voices and depicts the most complete portrait of the illness.  With an introduction by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Unholy Ghost allows the bewildering experience of depression to be adequately and beautifully rendered. The twenty-two stories that make up this book will offer solace and enlightenment to all readers.  Go to an excerpt of the book

Depression is Contagious – Michael Yapko, Ph.D.

Dr. Yapko has identified the types of relationship patterns that lead to negative ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others and culls from the latest findings in neuroscience, social psychology, epidemiology, and genetics to provide a practical, proven plan for developing the skills and insights you need to forge stronger, healthier social connections and enjoy an enriching, interconnected life. While commonly prescribed drugs address some of depression’s symptoms, they cannot change the social factors that cause and perpetuate the disorder. By treating a social condition as though it’s a disease, the problems compound rather than diminish. The foundation for recovery is to build a healthy social life based on understanding what to expect from our relationships, what we should give, and how to relate to and accept others — skills that have been neglected by modern society. Dr. Yapko’s groundbreaking plan of action — filled with skill-building emotional and mental exercises, anecdotes, and illuminating explanations.  Go to an article written by Dr. Yapko about his approach to treating depression

I Don’t Want to Talk About It – Terrence Real

Depression is a silent epidemic in men who hide their condition from family, friends, and themselves to avoid the stigma of depression’s “un-manliness.” Problems that we think of as typically male — difficulty with intimacy, workaholism, alcoholism, abusive behavior, and rage-are really attempts to escape depression. And these escape attempts only hurt the people men love and pass their condition on to their children. Real reveals how men can unearth their pain, heal themselves, restore relationships, and break the legacy of abuse. He mixes penetrating analysis with compelling tales of his patients and even his own experiences with depression as the son of a violent, depressed father and the father of two young sons. Go to a video of Terry talking about men and depression

What to Do When Someone You Love is Depressed – Mitch Golant and Susan Golant

There are few circumstances in life as hard and at the same time as important as being a friend to a person who is suffering from depression. What to Do When Someone You Love Is Depressed offers guidance to the friends and family of a depressed person on how to keep one’s own spirits up and at the same time do what is best to help a loved one get through a difficult time.  Read an excerpt here


 The Zen Path through Depression – Philip Martin

Extremely accessible to people with little or no Zen experience as well as to longtime students of Buddhism, The Zen Path through Depression shows how the insights and exercises of Zen offer relief for those suffering from depression.  Read an excerpt here

Beyond Blue – Therese Borchard

In this part memoir/part self-help, Therese Borchard, who blogs about depression at her site, Beyond Blue, endears herself to the reader and then reduces even the most depressed to laughter as she provides a companion on the journey to recovery and the knowledge that the reader is not alone.  Go to her popular depression blog now

Get it Done When You’re Depressed –Julie A. Fast and John Preston, M.D.

When a depressed person can’t meet the expectations of society, the depression becomes worse and a vicious cycle begins. The goal of Getting Things Done When You’re Depressed is to break this cycle. Readers will learn how to prepare themselves mentally for working while depressed, how to structure their environment so they can work more easily, how to work with others and how to prevent depression. Go to an interview with the author

The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques – Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D.

What I like about this book is that it provides an overview of the some of the best techniques out there that scientists and therapist are using to help and heal people from depression. As Margaret Wehrenberg explains, you must first understand your brain. Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience research presented in a reader-friendly way, Wehrenberg skillfully describes what happens in the brain of a depression sufferer and what specific techniques can be used to alter brain activity and control its range of disabling symptoms. Containing practical, take-charge tips from a seasoned clinician, this book presents the ten most effective strategies for moving from lethargy into action, taking charge of your brain, and breaking free from depression to find hope and happiness. Read an excerpt here



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