The Role of Cognitions in the Experience of Depression
There are countless phrases in the English (and likely other) language(s) that attribute perceived irrational behaviour to emotionality (“being in a mood”, “moody” etc.) In fact, if you wait quietly long enough you might even hear the age-old whispers of “it’s her time of the month” (classic!). In the era of cold rationality, is our emotionality as terrible as it is painted to be or does it serve a purpose?
In the 90's, there was a perceptible shift in the academic perspective studying topics associated with emotionality. Research now presented cognitive and evolutionary explanations for the adaptive role of emotions -- especially in mental processes such as attention, learning, memory, and perception.
Consider mentally placing yourself alone on an empty road late into the night. Isn’t it strange that the sound of every twig cracking or cricket chirping is suddenly more magnified to you? Fear is an emotion largely regulated by the part of the brain known as the amygdala which releases chemical substances that aid in your safety and survival. Your new and improved hearing is, as research claims, an adaptation to meet this end.
The proposed role of cognitive appraisal
A fair question to ask here would be that if emotions have evolved to help us navigate similar high-intensity situations, how do different people experience the same situation differently? The theory of cognitive appraisal may help us answer this mystery. Of the many existing models, this one asserts that cognitive appraisal forms the very core of our emotional response system.
To illustrate, when we are faced with a situation (say, you have to give a speech in front of a crowd of 100 people), Richard Lazarus claims that our brain first consciously or unconsciously determines whether the situation is threatening ( “I’m going to make a fool of myself”) or whether it is a challenge with the opportunity for growth (“I get to show everyone that I’m capable of doing this”).
This is simultaneously followed by our physiological responses (clammy and/or trembling hands, an increased heart rate, faster breathing, tightening muscles or more) and the labelling of our emotions (as fear, excitement, joy or so on.) Essentially meaning that our brains interpret the situation that we are faced with and it is on the basis of this appraisal/ interpretation that we then create our understanding of the situation.
Interestingly, further research in the psychology of emotions has presented even more considerations beyond threat-challenge that determine the nature of our cognitive appraisal- evidence of the complexity of this mental process.
So the next time you wonder why you cannot contain your tears when Hachi (subtle plug!) waits at the railway station for Parker Wilson (played by Richard Gere) while your sister seems to be completely unaffected, or why your hands feel clammy during a horror movie while everyone else seems to be laughing around you, consider that it might have something to do with your perception of the situation you’re in. Such an understanding of cognitive appraisal gives us insight into the extent to which it is crucial to mood regulation and, by extension, our mental health.
The sticky nature of depression
While the determinants of depression — a mood disorder — are many and no one cause can be attributed to it, mood regulation features as a key area of concern for all that study it. The numbers here are bad. Bleak estimates convey that more than 264 million people (2017 estimates, predicted to be higher now) worldwide, struggle with depression.
A recent systematic review of literature on the burden of mental disorders in South Asian countries alone found the prevalence of depression in up to 6.6%–37% of the general population (across these countries) with the rates being significantly higher in those with other physical or mental health conditions.
As someone who has battled major depression a few times myself, I am not a stranger to the dread that accompanies a recurrent episode and in the light of such overwhelming statistics, I wonder how much we can do to stall the onset of one. Is there a way to harness our evolutionary ability to emote and use the skills of cognitive appraisal to retrain our brain to think better? In other words, could we think our way out of depression?
I must mention that I am by no means insinuating that our negative thoughts can simply be switched off or ignored into betterment. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that suppressing negative emotions may be harmful across multiple contexts — as in the case of caregivers, in young adults, in those with pre-existing anxiety and depression and more. This is especially true of situations in which the negative thoughts revolve around events that are more central to our identity. Instead, my speculation lies in the deliberate effort to bring a sustainable improvement in one’s mood, motivation and functioning. “Sucking it up and dealing with it” or “forgetting about it” are easier said than done and we’re all ultimately chasing solutions. The first step to managing a condition of hopelessness, despair and low motivation would be to understand where it stems from. It is here that we can also grow to appreciate the involvement of a therapist who may provide us with a safe space to unpack the source of our sticky thoughts, improve our functionality and -hopefully- work towards maximizing our potential.
Cognitive appraisal and it's place in therapy!
Therapeutic practices have been evolving rapidly for over a century with each form of therapy assuming a different approach to the understanding of the human brain. Therapists differ in their orientation and it helps to speak to them about the kind of therapy they practice, in accordance with the kind of treatment that you need. One of the most effective therapeutic treatments for depression, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), is founded on the conjunction of the principles of Cognitive Therapy (CT) and Behaviour Therapy (BT). Cognitive Therapy uses tested methods to assist people in changing their negative beliefs to more positive patterns by helping them use the mechanism of cognitive appraisal among others. Meanwhile, Behaviour Therapy focuses on our learning of helpful behaviours- those that improve our functionality- and unlearning of harmful behaviours- those that may be hindering our functionality. Working with a professional who practices CBT may be your first step to understanding the whys and hows of your condition. (Note: therapists of other orientations are also equally capable and it is up to you as the client to see which kind works for you! Here’s a prospective start.)
What else can we do?
As a student of psychology and as someone who has experienced the benefits of it firsthand, I would always suggest therapy but there are things you could do in combination with therapy to aid the process of recovery. Exercise, attempts at developing a sleep routine, a balanced diet, some social interaction, pursuing interests and engaging in basic grooming and self-care are suggested by therapists. As irritating and impractical as I know the fact above may seem, get your feet moving and your heart will follow. This one’s from personal experiences and interactions with friends who have struggled with depression and periods of terrible mental health themselves.
So, can we simply snap our fingers and think ourselves out of our depression? Unfortunately, no. We can, however, learn to identify the sources of our distress, our patterns and negative beliefs, make a call to an accessible therapist, and give ourselves a chance by providing the best environment for recovery that our tired brains and bodies allow us to.
Anjali Nambiar (she/her) is Research Assistant at Nolmë Labs. She is a psychology graduate working towards her childhood ambition of being a clinical psychologist. She is currently trying to figure out how to follow four sports at once - one of which is her endless game of catch up with academic readings. You are also likely to find her force feeding her parents her food experiments.