Today I will approach the problem of depression, but from a particular vantage point – that steeped in cognitive theory and informed by the work of Martin Seligman.

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

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There have been other views about depression- a psychoanalytical one whereby depression was deemed as rage turning upon inwards and directed towards the self; and a biomedical one whereby depression is considered a disease of the brain/body- imbalances in neurotransmitters etc. . Seligman rejects both models and considers depression (even clinically defined) as just the other extreme of response to loss etc. This is important to note as unipolar depression, clinically defined, is usually considered a  type rather than a degree phenomena, i.e. people in depressive phase are qualitatively different from those who are not clinically depressed as per the prevalent model.However, note that even Seligman considers the mild form of depression as distinct from sadness.

The theory of depression that Seligman and colleagues came up with is based on his famous experiments with dogs whereby experimental dogs were subjected to uncontrollable mild shocks while the control dogs either received no shocks or shocks that they could stop and control. When the dogs who were subjected to uncontrollable shocks were placed in anew chamber whereby they could escape shocks by climbing over a  low barrier, they sat passively. They had learned or internalized that nothing they do with respect to shocks makes the shocks go away and had even generalized it to new situations when things were actually under their control. Also the feelings of helplessness reflected in many diverse behaviors like less aggressiveness or exploration etc and was sort of generalized across situations too.  So not only the experimental dogs made permanent attributions about their lack of control, but also pervasive attributions and thus became depressed.

Seligman and colleagues designed and executed similar experiments with rats and also humans. Using these experiments they were able to create a model of depression. That model of depression requires different things to come together, but typically as its called learned helplessness model of depression, the focus has been on the learned helplessness following a loss of control.

The different components of the model, when explicated, have different implications for treatment/ prevention. To start with before the process can start one has to have loss of control – if our environments provided more opportunity for control over our experiences and in general if people learned to feel more in control of their life, despite losses and all, then the chain stops at its beginning itself. While some losses are inevitable, say loss of loved one, other losses like pink slips can be minimized and then no matter what the loss is , one can choose one’s own attitude towards the loss – the last of human freedom’s as per Frankl.

Once loss/ dejection/rejection/ loss of control has happened, almost all of us will temporarily become helpless. However, becoming helpless is not same as becoming mildly depressed too. For some of us who have a habitual pessimistic explanatory style, in terms of seeing the negative events in our lives as being permanent and pervasive, the learned helplessness turns into momentary , mild depression. We have sad affect, disturbed sleeping, eating etc. However, for those who have optimistic explanatory styles, we re-bounce from the learned helpless and do not become depressed. So changing the habitual explanatory style is another intervention opportunity.

Finally, the mild and momentary depression become full-fledged clinical unipolar depression, when the symptoms continue for 2 weeks or more and as per Seligman this happens when one adds a ruminating thinking style to the mix. Thus a person who has a pessimistic style and also keeps thinking about his own thoughts is more likely to get clinically depressed. Again , if we can prevent or reduce rumination we can prevent the clinical variant.

Cognitive behavioral therapy , which has been found to be quite effective for depression, has been shown to work on some of these aspects  increasing optimistic explanatory style and challenging negative automatic thoughts  but probably can be augmented by focusing on preventing rumination and story-editing techniques to re-frame issues of loss and control.

In the end, in my view depression has complex roots – some steeped in biology and temperament, while others due to environmental stressors and our reactions to them. A clearer understanding of the learned helplessness model of depression is likely to aid in therapy.