Thursday, April 07, 2011

Traits of the Healthy and the Depressive

Although it's been 26 years since I left my psychiatry residency, psychiatric journals continue to follow me wherever I go.  The drug companies just won't give up on their advertising if there's a chance I might still be prescribing.  I even received journals when I lived in Mexico (without ever informing the publishers of my whereabouts).  I do read them from time to time, though usually not in depth, but when I run across a useful article I'm glad to share.  And in this month's Journal of Clinical Psychiatry there's a useful article (with the usual insufferably long title, "Psychological Characteristics of Chronic Depression: A Longitudinal Cohort Study").

Scientifically (and I won't bore you with the research methods), three traits stood out that differentiate the healthy from the chronically depressed: extraversion, rumination, and external locus of control.  Introversion marks the depressive while extraversion (an outgoing personality more deeply involved in activities external to the self) marks the healthy.  Rumination, the mind-numbing circular contemplations of the self and its shortcomings, also marks the depressive, as does a perceived external locus of control--or feeling more a victim of life than its engineer, beholden to gods or bosses or limitations imposed by society.

Other traits of the healthy, suggested by the study but not rigorously affirmed by science, include agreeableness and conscientiousness (this is not to say the depressed aren't conscientious, even overly so).  So our picture of the healthy individual portrays an easygoing, outgoing personality with a sense of personal control over his life.

More traits of the depressive, again not rigorously confirmed by this study but only suggested, include higher levels of neuroticism, hopelessness, aggression, and risk aversion.  It might be instructive to list these for the record:

Characteristics of the Chronically Depressed:

1) Neuroticism (behaviors associated with anxiety, fear of others' opinions, indecision and inhibitions that do not serve the self).

2) Hopelessness

3) Aggression (Freud famously argued that depression was aggression turned against the self).

4) Risk Aversion

5) Rumination

6) External Locus of Control

Characteristics of the Undepressed:

1) Extraversion

2) Agreeableness

3) Conscientiousness

Now what do we make of this?  How can this be applied to therapy for the depressed?  Conscientiousness may possibly be taught, but how does one come by extraversion and agreeableness?  Are these learned traits or inborn?  How much can they be promoted by therapy?  Aye, there's the rub. 

As medical intervention has recently failed me, in a 45-day stay at a university hospital with maximum medications, group therapy and 12 ECT treatments, I have turned to psychotherapy out of necessity, though I have little faith in the method, as twice before "depth" psychotherapy has actually made me worse.  This time I have at least selected a cognitive-behavioral therapist, whose method is most endorsed by research.  And what does this method involve?  No less than re-programming of old, self-defeating tapes and the substitution of new behaviors.  Or simplistically, "Act as if you are not depressed and feelings should follow."  Try to identify what thoughts are associated with negative feelings and endeavor to combat them--catch yourself in mid-dip and argue with yourself, trying to put a rational perspective on things.  Do not give in to your irrational inner child, fixated in early development, self-indulgent, afraid and non-functional (as an adult). 

I can see from this inner landscape, as my therapist has also advised me, that it is hard work crawling out of the hole.  And I have never been impressed by how much people change over time, in fact the opposite seems true: people don't change very much.  But if I am to have a hope of being delivered from the depressive side of my manic-depressive disease, the side that unfortunately dominates, I need to take my psychology in hand and do something about the way I think, feel and behave.  This may seem obvious to some but in my experience it is novel, as it seems to me that when the proper cocktail of medications has been discovered in the past, I became well and did not feel a need for therapy.  In fact, I may have become agreeable and extraverted, though I have always been conscientious--if not financially then at least interpersonally, , especially in keeping my word.

The wisdom of this article I may have compressed long ago in my own capsulized advice about depression:

1) It is better to do something than nothing.

2) It is better to do something active than passive.

3) It is better to be with or around people than alone.

4) Try to set an achievable goal each day, however small.

Still when one is seriously depressed, following this advice or even more daunting, trying to achieve agreeableness and a sense of personal control are almost unimaginable.  But courage, my friends, courage.  "Never give up, never ever give up" quoth a famous depressive, Winston Churchill.  I need this kind of courage if I am to save myself. 

If psychotherapy doesn't help, what do I have left?  Voodoo?  I'd much rather sacrifice a chicken than work hard to reverse my dysfunctional,ingrained mental processes.  But to what do I owe them?  A genetically inherited disease beyond my control, a malady of the brain? (Studies have confirmed that depression changes the very structure of the brain, up to a 20% decrease in the volume of the amygdala, for instance.)  How can psychology affect this? 

Obviously it is not one or the other.  It is both nature and nurture.  Talking oneself out of the pits must be of some utility or it would not be so firmly in practice.

The etymological root of therapy is "correction."  Can I be "corrected" at this late date, at age 56, when my brain has already been changed by my disease?  I have to hope so.  And hope is so essential to surviving depression.  I can't think of anything more valuable.  Despite past experience, I must imbue the psychotherapeutic process with hope.  Then again, how can one hour a week compete with the other 167?  One hopes that the patient can apply the lessons of therapy during the hours away from the therapist, else all is in vain.  But ideally we need some kind of boot camp for depressives, as modeling is the best form of teaching, and in these camps there should be more healthy individuals than sick ones. 

One of the great disadvantages of a mental hospital, one I recently experienced, is that all the sick people are thrown together.  Who are they to help each other?  The staff is not powerful enough to successfully model new behaviors.  They are too often lost in paperwork anyway.  It would be so much better to place a mentally ill person in a healthy family for a time than subject them to the idiosyncrasies of other patients.  But health is at a premium, and would fetch a premium price, and besides, this approach is not likely to ever be implemented while present models of disease and health predominate.

Still, if there is a family out there willing to adopt me for a time, I would seriously consider it--with my wife's permission, of course (is that too much an expression of an external locus of control?).

Thine as ever,

Craig Erick


  1. I've read that depression is finite, that even left untreated it eventually lifts. Wouldn't this be the case with you? Somewhere between depression and mania lies normality so isn't it safe to assume that time alone, although maybe not "healing" in one sense of the word, will bring you some relief?

  2. Richard, this is in general true, though the wait can be horrible. I did have nearly ten good years from late '97 to early '06, and for the last couple of years there I was on minimal medications. I know I had some serious sups and downs, but I never got stuck in those years. Since moving to Mendocino in '06 my disease has been as activated as perhaps never before. I can see environmental triggers if I wish to see them, but so many times I have fallen into inestimable funks without identifiable triggers; sometimes the disease appears only endogenously determined. But I must have hope. I try desperately to avoid bitterness but it is sometimes difficult. I know there are countless others with worse problems, but here is the rub: depression ruins everything. Even the very ill, with other maladies, may enjoy the blessing of not being depressed, which in my microcosm is the ultimate blessing. The absence of such pain is my greatest pleasure, a sad commentary on my life. Today, at least, I became very pissed off at myself, sometimes a good sign--pissed off for my inactivity and lack of participation or interest in life beyond avoidance. Thanks for the reminder, however.

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  4. Anonymous1:28 AM PDT


    I looked you up from the days when I published in Melic.

    I'm sorry to see you struggling with depression, but at the same time I can't feel too sorry for you or I'd have to feel sorry for myself as well, and that's not a good idea for me.

    Religion would also be a terrible idea for me, which is why I only approach it as a skeptic and engage in no more than debate.

    I don't watch love scenes from movies.

    One pill I used to take had a side effect that consisted of making my blood pressure fluctuate more than it would have in the drug's absence. So when I stood up, orthostatic hyper... whatever and when I went to the gym to work out one day and decided to do leg presses and really strain myself, blood vessels in one eye pooped and the eye filled up with blood. So, my pressure fluctuated more, just like my emotions do. I have a wider range and they're triggered more easily.

    As I read through your blog, older posts too, I thought how I would might act in parallel to the behavior you exhibited. But I'm no part of anything. I have my hopes pinned on nothing but me. If I ever caught myself attaching my emotions to something as far from my control as politics or sporting events, or if I caught myself involved in groups that purposely induce feelings of community and kinship (religion)... well, I'd punch myself in the face until I came to my senses.

    When my hopes switch back and forth from my pipe dreams to realistic professional goals, I'm a pretty hopeful person. Once I attach my hopes to something else, I'm in for a ride that's going to take me from singing-on-the-sidewalk happy to staring-at-the-river-from-the-bridge down in the dumps.

    Unfortunately, I just pinned my hopes on a woman and went for a two-year ride, and I cried 1,000 gallons of tears in that time.

    Thankfully, now she's sort of out of my head, so I'm pipe dreaming a bit. My point is, and I hope it's at least an interesting point, that no matter how badly I disappoint myself, it doesn't bother me all that much, and I can still muster up some hope in the wake of personal heartbreaks. But when it's the outside world that lets me down, I go way down.

    That's all.

    Was good to run into you again.



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