Why Is There Depression If We Can Control Our Thoughts

Why Is There Depression If We Can Control Our Thoughts

Why is there depression if we are supposedly able to control our feelings by changing our thoughts?

This question struck me this week as I grappled with my own several days of feeling sad, blue, kinda lost, asking myself, “What am I doing?”

It started off on the heals of a few days of some big work-related set backs, coupled with some relationship “issues” / changes, more rounds of my trying to figure out just how much social media ramping up I can handle, and that baffling question that seems to surface at times like this, “Am I doing what I should be doing?”

Sad Feelings - Minor Depression - Major Depression. It's important to understand the differences and treat accordingly.

Sad Feelings – Minor Depression – Major Depression. It’s important to understand the differences and treat accordingly.

I tried hard to follow my own advice – “change where you think,” “live in the moment,” “amp up self-care,” “simplify”… and eventually decided to just give into the sad, blue, kinda lost, asking myself, “What am I doing?”… kinds of feelings, for which “giving in” for me means to crawl in bed, take a nap, get up and eat frozen yogurt smothered in chocolate sauce and then crawl back into bed and read a novel, get up, make another gratitude list (and I have SO MUCH for which to be grateful), take a hike, do some work, make outreach calls (unfortunately the one that answered wanted to fix it, I wanted to wallow), cry my grief out loud (really loudly), crawl back in bed, eat a third bowl of frozen yogurt smothered in chocolate sauce, watch some mindless TV and go to bed early with the hope that tomorrow would be a better day. This went on for a couple of days, although I did cut out the yogurt smothered in chocolate sauce and mindless TV on the second day and went swimming and started making lists, instead (additional methods I use to sort through feelings).

So why am I sharing all this?

My experiences this week gave me pause as I wondered what it’d be like to have “real” depression, aka minor depression, and beyond that, major depression. What it would be like to read phrases like “change your thoughts, change your feelings,” knowing full well you would if you could, %#*!!

So I wanted to use the remainder of this post to share some key research about depression in the event you or your loved one suffer from it. It’s so important to treat it [explained below] – which goes a lot better with the right kind of help [also explained below] – not only to find relief from the crushing feelings of depression, but because depression and other mental illnesses comprise one of the five key risk factors for developing an addiction or a substance abuse problem. Depression is a brain changer – it actually changes the way the brain works.

To see how this looks in brain scans and to find additional information on depression, click on WebMD’s “Depression Overview Slideshow.”

Additionally, if you’re experiencing chronic secondhand drinking, you are also at higher risk for depression. It’s one of the outcomes of the chronic activation of the brain’s fight-or-flight stress response system, which is also a brain changer. For more on this, check out “Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking | Drugging.”

Now to get to the important take-away and that is to understand sad feelings may or may not lead to minor depression. Minor depression may or may not lead to major depression. And, it’s important to understand and if necessary, address all of them.

Sad Feelings

Most of us have sad feelings of some sort, now and again – it’s part of being human. With sad feelings, it’s entirely possible to “change where you think,” like it was for me after the several days described above – not necessarily the day of, but within a few days, certainly.  I make this clarification because often it’s important to sit with the sad, blue, kinda lost, asking myself, “What am I doing?” kinds of feelings. That’s because the brain and feelings have a very special yin-yang “relationship.” To understand how our brains and feelings interact, check out A Discovery Company’s How Stuff Works’ slideshow:

5 Ways Your Brain Influences Your Emotions – be sure to scroll (click) through all 6 slides.

In fact, it can be downright good for you. It’s taken me years to understand this. For you see, it was when I didn’t allow myself the time to just flow with these blah feelings – a meditation of sorts – a way of letting in and then sorting through a tidal wave of thoughts and feelings –  that things didn’t go well. I would tell myself, “It could be worse,” and then do something, anything to make the feeling go away – to “fix it” – and sometimes the “something” or “anything” caused more harm than the fleeting good it did to distract myself. In one of my “could be worse” modes, for example, I hung in so long battling a loved one’s untreated alcoholism, I eventually found myself diagnosed with situational depression for which I was prescribed Prosac.

As I’ve learned, blah kinds of sad-related feelings may be telling you it’s time for a change, because the truth of the matter is, “It could be better.” Check out:

Worried, Anxious, Stressed? Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

Minor Depression and Major Depression

For this, I quote definitions from the National Institutes of Health National Institute on Mental Illness, What Is Depression?

Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad. But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days. When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you. Depression is a common but serious illness.

Minor depression is characterized by having symptoms for 2 weeks or longer that do not meet full criteria for major depression. Without treatment, people with minor depression are at high risk for developing major depressive disorder.

Major depressive disorder, or major depression, is characterized by a combination of symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities. Major depression is disabling and prevents a person from functioning normally. Some people may experience only a single episode within their lifetime, but more often a person may have multiple episodes.

Help | Treatment for Depression

And before I close, please know that depression often contributes to a person’s death by suicide. IF you have any thoughts along these lines, please immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255. Someone is there 24/7 to take your call, so please don’t wait. Remember, depression is a brain changer, and the brain changes can make one feel hopeless, abandoned, unable to cope with practical matters – but these are the consequences of the brain changers – consequences that can convolute one’s “thinking.” They can be dealt with IF you get the right help, so please call 1-800-273-8255.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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17 Responses to Why Is There Depression If We Can Control Our Thoughts

  1. valerie says:

    I would love to share this on my website, please feel free to check out my work and, if you wish, give me permission?

  2. ‘You have to have known pain in order to feel joy’ – the very best sermon I’ve ever heard was centered around this very topic. I am big believer in ‘going through it, and not around it’ – meaning feel the pain if you can stand it at all. (future blog coming on this when the inspiration hits) It has its function as you say. So in a strange way I am glad you hung around and had some stuff with chocolate on it. 🙂 Just think if we were always 100% happy, how would we know it??? I think this is part of the necessary human condition. And for sure, not acknowledging our pain can lead to big trouble. I guess the secret is knowing when it is ok, and when we need to get some help, and you provided some great resources for those who may be pondering that question! Rock on Lisa, in whatever fashion is good for you today. You’ve got this!

    • Can’t wait to see your inspired blog post, Leslie – I’m sure it’ll be great and a huge help to your readers. I’m grateful I’ve finally gotten to this place where I can give into the sad feelings and really feel them. The other way was a real nightmare! And like you say, without pain we’d never know what real happiness is and that would be unfortunate because as I’ve also learned with all of this “learning,” feeling truly happy is so awesome!

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Great information on depression. I know it does affect so many people and the more we know the better we do. Hope you have a better week next week!

  4. Kyczy Hawk says:

    ONce again NAILED IT – I, too, go through cycles like this and they are interminable when I am in them, refuse to respond to the power of my amazing brain, and… dissipate (rather than go underground) when I FEEL MY FEELINGS and avoid resisting them (of course – safety first – seeking help when the feelings lasted long and included thoughts of harm). But feeling the feelings without resisting and without punishing myself for feeling “off” allows them to pass through. Really. THANK YOU FOR THE REFERENCES – you help me understand, but also help me feel.

    • You describe this so beautifully, Kyczy – love this, “feeling the feelings without resisting and without punishing myself for feeling ‘off’ allows them to pass through.” It sure does! Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. Herby Bell says:


    Wow…you’ve parsed out the nuggets again for me. How gracious of you to offer your own “human beingness” to let others know…brain shift happens.

    I began to think of Rumi’s 900 year old poem, “Guest House”, where he writes about all sorts of feelings visiting our thoughts–just passing through–so, “be hospitable, so they don’t tear the place down.” But you’re talking about something altogether different here.

    And once again you advise early evaluation, detection and correction before this pervasive problem ends tragically–as it so often does. I I also appreciate the information regarding the crossover implications in addictive and compulsive disorders.

    I’m left with, “It’s tricky”, but heartened to learn of so many resources for people to seek and get help.

    Thank you, Lisa!

    • Love it, Herby – “brain shift happens” – perfect! I’m so glad you think this helps – the stigma around these two brain diseases (depression and addiction) are crushing – hopefully exchanges like we’re having will help others see it’s not them, they’re not weak-willed – it’s their disease that needs treatment and one from which they can recover and move on to live a joy-filled life. I also hope this helps others who love them or who know them understand these brain changers for what they are and lend their unqualified support for their loved one or friend’s treatment and recovery journey. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Great article, Lisa. Boy, isn’t this the question of the ages? Yes, if we’re supposedly able to control our thinking; why, then, do feelings of depression exist/persist? Sure, some of it’s about biochemistry and anatomy. But even then, we have the authority and ability to change. So many other factors – conditioned responses, inner critic, pervasive patterns of icky thoughts – you name it! Bottom-line – we have to keep on keepin’ on, trying/working every possible angle. ‘Course, never losing a firm grip on hope is crucial. Thanks for the piece, Lisa!

    • Thanks so much for bringing in the other factors one needs to consider – “conditioned responses, inner critic, pervasive patterns of icky thoughts – you name it!” But as you also write, “– we have to keep on keepin’ on, trying/working every possible angle. ‘Course, never losing a firm grip on hope is crucial.'” Great points! Thanks for your comment.

  7. Super Star says:

    Great article on mild vs severe depression. I find that also, sitting with the feelings, experiencing them and then reflecting on them, where they truly originate from, helps me combat them. Meaning: turn the blue into a bright blue and having gratitude for the emotion itself and the fact that I have the privilege to experience any emotions at all.

    This week I buried my best friend who suffered from an overdose. It was truly difficult. I found myself in a struggle with the what if’s and I could of should of stuff. My friend is no longer able to experience any emotions at all. Knowing this has helped me keep in check this week through all this and remember that I do have the power and the tools to overcome the blues at any moment.

    For me emotion is created by motion so its important for me to get up, try again and this I find has often times brought me into more of a light of hope.

    I don’t know if anything I just typed makes sense, I am still in a sort of haze from the tragedy this week but if there was one thing I could covey it would be that emotions of sadness are a gift and are there for a reason. They are there to tell us something and provide a clue on which direction to steer our mighty vehicle in. I am grateful today that I am above ground and sad or not, I am going to do the best I can to find my own happiness and give that happiness away as much as I can to others so that they too can experience what true serenity feels like.

    • What a beautifully written comment, Super Star. I like your “emotion is created by motion” idea and very much agree it’s important we view our emotions of sadness as a gift, sometimes. I’m so, so very sorry about your friend.

  8. Jody Lamb says:

    Thanks for getting so personal and sharing about your bouts with those icky, blue days. I have those, too, and ice cream is often involved – as is not being able to fall sleep and morning and evening waves of super anxiety.

    Thank you also for the facts about depression. Depression is an overused and often misused word and this is a great overview about the various levels. As always, thank you for the

    You are doing an amazing job with BreakingTheCycles.com. Thank you so much for creating such an amazing resource and community.

    • Why thank you so much for the compliment of my work and BreakingTheCycles.com, Jody. Coming from you – as someone who’s lived much of what I write about – it means a lot. I’m so enjoying following your work, as well!

  9. […] I love featuring guests posts on Chipur, ’cause the perspective of others is important. So, once again it’s time to hear from our friend – author, speaker, consultant – Lisa Frederiksen. Here’s a reprint of her July 14 piece, “Why Is There Depression If We Can Control Our Thoughts?.” […]

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