The Vicious Cycle of Depression
Updated: Jun 19, 2019
‘It’s a vicious cycle’.
This is a well-known phrase and that’s probably for a good reason- it is just that- VICIOUS.
While depression is experienced differently by everyone, many can relate to the feeling of being trapped, and this post is going to talk about understanding what the vicious cycle looks like for us individually and how we can use this as a first step to improving our mood.
Understanding the Vicious Cycle of Depression
The vicious cycle can be categorised into 5 key areas- triggers, thoughts, behaviours, emotions, and physical feelings. When we are depressed, each of these areas slowly become filled with the things that keep us trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle. Now we'll briefly touch on each one.
Triggers- One of the first things we might think about is ‘why am I depressed? Depression may or may not have a clear trigger.
We might easily be able to track down where a period of low mood started, such as a particularly stressful time at work.
Significant life changes that people might not normally associate with depression e.g. having a baby, getting married, moving etc can cause us to feel down.
Sometimes we just don’t know.
This is completely normal and there doesn’t always need to be a reason for depression. I know that for me, if there isn’t a clear reason why I feel down, insisting on finding the trigger only makes me feel worse.
Thoughts- When we are depressed there are certain thoughts that we hold onto more than others. The list could go on forever, but some commonly experienced thoughts are:
‘I am a failure’, ‘I will never amount to anything’, ‘Everything is hopeless’, ‘I am worthless’, ‘I can’t cope’. These thoughts ‘feed’ the depression and keep it going.
Emotions- If we are trying to get through each day with thoughts such as ‘Everything is hopeless’ then it’s understandable that we may start feeling sad, anxious, angry etc. Similarly, if we feel sad, anxious, and angry then we are more likely to go down the road of ‘Everything is hopeless'.
Physical feelings- If we are having thoughts of hopelessness, feeling sad and anxious, how might this impact our body? Depression can be exhausting, energy draining, anxiety inducing. We may find ourselves crying a lot and feeling ‘heavy’.
Behaviours- Depression creeps into every part of our lives and with the thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings we go through, it impacts how we behave. We might withdraw from our friends and family, avoid things, slowly take less care of ourselves, and ruminate more.
Each of these areas fuel both each other and themselves, working together to keep us depressed.
When we are going through it, it is very difficult to interrupt it if we don’t understand all the parts that make it up. Now let’s look at why doing your very own ‘vicious cycle’ activity may help you and how CBT uses this to overcome low mood.
How we can use the Vicious Cycle for change
We can never fully get rid of feeling down, but we can gain some control and reduce the impact it has on your life.
Writing down your own vicious cycle provides some form of clarity in something that, when we are going through it, has no clarity. Depression is already so much hard work, that trying to understand what it even is or how we can change it can be so overwhelming. Where do we start?
-Ask yourself, using the 5 categories above (thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviours, triggers) what does my depression look like?
-Write anything that comes to mind underneath these headings, you may want to draw it out like a flower, with each category being a petal.
Some things seem to overlap, e.g. if you ruminate you may wonder- where would this go on the vicious flower?
Rumination is actually a behaviour, although it is involving our thoughts, it is an activity that we engage in. To find out more about rumination click here.
Additionally, it can be confusing to work out whether something would come under a ‘thought’ or an ‘emotion/feeling’.
As a general rule, if you have identified an emotion, you can probably ‘put a face to it’ e.g. there may be an emoji on your phone for it.
If it is a thought, you probably can’t label it with a face and is more descriptive e.g. ‘I feel …’.
Thoughts and emotions are easily blurred because the language we use tends to cross over i.e. ‘I feel worthless’ is a thought that could easily be confused with a feeling.
Keep in mind that it can be upsetting to write out a vicious cycle, because it means you are actively ‘looking’ at your depression for what it is.
It may seem like such a small step, but for many people this is the first time that they get to directly look at what their depression looks like for them. Simply getting it out onto a piece of paper in an organised fashion is powerful.
CBT aims to improve our mood by managing our thoughts and behaviours, and once people complete their own vicious cycle, we start changing our behaviours first. This is because these are easier to make initial changes to .For example, if I told you 'don't be sad', it won’t work. If you could, you would have already, right?
However, altering a behaviour e.g. setting a small goal for ourselves, is much more attainable before tackling our thoughts.
It is important to set goals that are attainable in the place you are right now, e.g. if you haven’t gone out for a walk in ages, starting with a five minute walk may be more realistic than walking as far as what you perhaps did before.
You can easily write out your own vicious flower, but I have put together a free printable that you can download below.
It takes strength to face what is going on for us, especially if you have felt this way for a long time. While writing your own vicious cycle is useful, it's okay if you aren't ready to face it just yet.