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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

New Research: Sadness and Depression with the Brain in Mind

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 12th 2010

Imagine if you were sitting in your living room and when you turned on the television the movie Terms of Endearment came on. It wasn’t just any part of the movie, it was the moment where the mother watches her daughter who had been struggling with cancer pass away. If you don’t know this movie, it’s one of the greatest tearjerkers of all time.

Earlier this year, Farb and colleagues (2010) conducted research called Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness that did a variation of this with two groups of people, those trained in mindfulness meditation and a waitlisted control group in order to see any different activity in their brains. Past research, along with this current study, have shown that mindfulness training has helped with depressive relapse and so the researchers simply wanted to find out if there was any correlation in brain activity that could help explain why. 

What they found was that both groups experienced a similar level of sadness, but there were also stark differences in brain activity. The group that did not receive mindfulness training showed a lot of activity in an area of the brain called the cortical midline pathway, which is also called the narrative network. In other words, this is where people are referencing their lives or autobiographies about where they’re going, what they’re doing, how they compare to others, why life is so good, so bad, or will be so much better later on. In other words, a lot of thinking.

It’s not surprising that this group also scored higher on the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). Depression is a cycling of thoughts, feelings and emotions that work together in a downward spiral. So if sadness comes up, it triggers associated sad stories from the past and this increases the feeling, continuing the spiral.

The mindfulness training group showed more activity in the areas of the brain that are associated with greater experiential awareness and somatic focus. In other words, they didn’t get as caught up in the stories of the mind and their depression scores were lower.

The researchers said:

“The neural patterns observed in the present study suggest that the reduced emotional interference associated with mindfulness may stem from the objectification of emotion as innocuous sensory information rather than as an affectladen threat to self requiring a regulatory response.”

In other words, mindfulness helps us to see emotions without judgment, stripping the automatic story that arises that they are somehow a threat and therefore calms the nervous system and reduces any spiral downward. This just makes sense.

Next time an uncomfortable emotion arises, see if you can hold the brain in mind, knowing that what we want to do is deactivate the areas lighting up the stories and fire up the ones that activate an experiential focus on the present moment as it is. 

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from. 

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    peoples views amaze me - - Dec 30th 2010

    I've been unhappy my whole life, not always depressed mainly negative. PMS brings out the worst days. Even when I have everything I need or could ever want I am still unhappy. Reading everyones views here just makes me realize more and more that happiness is in fact a state of mind and it comes from within. No special circumstances in your live will ever bring you permanent happiness. My latest attempts at being happy are through nutrition and exercise. And attempting to stay in the NOW. I can see where this is the only way to true happiness but it is a difficult task. I see from reading the comments above that people really do not get this. These people expect their world and others to be in perfect harmony in order to make their world perfect. They are depending on outer circumtances to make them happy. Just because your surrounded by ingrats doesn't mean you have to be an ingrat or be miserable. With or without those people in your life you would be miserable.  Find the happiness within you. I'm trying, it isn't easy, but it's the only way. I know plenty of rich people who are very happy because they are also very giving and have had a beautiful loving upbringing. So money has nothing to do with happiness. If it's your single source of unhappiness then maybe, but for the most part it isn't.  I sit here and try and figure out what the hell is making me unhappy and I cannot. . I cannot get close to people, nor do I want to. I wish I was one of those people but I am not. I've tried but I just don't care about people. I love animals and no people not even my mother. She never showed us love growing up. I never heard "I love you from anyone in my family". Never. So I guess I grew up conditioned to not receive love from people. So how do I change this. I really don't think I can. But I do realize it's a brain thing. It's in my head. It's stories I keep telling myself.  I just don't know how to change this in my brain. I've tried and tried but I can't. Drugs do not help. I have been on  many and you cannot stay on them long even if they are helping. Once you try and get off the meds you go down even further than you were when you started.

    Good Zach - bluecarol - Dec 12th 2010

    Hi, Zach.

    I agree that you are a good person.  I don't agree that a "difficult" life is the same as a "bad" life.  I've had a hard way to go too, and sometimes I get tired and the world looks gray/black.  The perception gets messed up (made darker) by the fatigue, and the dark thoughts get to run rampant, and that's what I see happening to you.  Then, the chemistry in your brain gets affected and, you are depressed.

    How to make a change when it gets like that?  Meditation does help, so long as you have a guided meditation on CD or tape and a healthy, positive person is LEADING you out of the muck. 

    While meditation helps, sometimes  you just need meds to overcome the dark.  If you haven't been to the doctor yet, go now.  The right meds will help the brain chemistry and help you lift the funk so you can learn to help yourself without them.  It takes time.   Stay good, Zach.  Take care of yourself, not only for yourself, but for your wife and the world.

    Blessings to you, Zach.

    Bluecarol.

    Life is beautiful - - Nov 24th 2010

    I am amazed that these sad people view life as such. Life is made up of moments and you are ultimately responsible for how your life is at this time. No matter how hard it is, it is all transitory and therefore essentially has no significant meaning anyway. Too much thinking has made this world as crazy as it is and a little less thinking and a little more living in the present is a good antidote to a depressed mind.

    RE: Sadness and Depression with the Brain in Mind. - Alison - Nov 22nd 2010

    This is so fantastic. Thank you for sharing!

    Transformation - Adrian - Nov 20th 2010

    Take it easy on yourselves, you are your own worst critics!

    life is not a race to the end with whoever dies with the most amount of money the winner.

    Its the little moments that go by that make up your life - not a dream of the future, or a memory of the past.

    Mindfulness in meditation will help us all to accept the moment and can transform your life. Give it a chance, try it , join a meditation group. ( information on the web) reclaim a small 30 mins of the day as your own quiet time and meditate. 

    These small changes can transform your life , given time and approached with a positive attitude.

    Small changes like small hinges , they can swing big doors , closing on the negative and opening on the positive.

    never give up hope.

    depression writes the pages of your life - cass - Nov 15th 2010

    Depressed as I am it seemingly writes what I want to hear because it knows that to try to put in joy is to output the total difference of the real way I am thinking. It pulls you in many directions regardless of which way you would like to be and as trying to find a smile its like looking in a dark cave to find your way. It is darn hard to get out and try to make that struggle each day up that hill over the other side and say "Hey I'am different now I've come out of it". No it is just a real darn struggle but a courageous struggle working through those intense weaves we make to tell ourselves do this do that but then don't do anything. Challenge tops me for to get there and try to say I'am out of it and on top of myself now. Maybe I will never win! Maybe someday I will!

    mindfulness - exit_man - Nov 15th 2010

    Whoa there partner!  Please try to be positive in your ourtlook and practice your mindfulness.  It helps it REALLY does!  Being mindful has helped me so much and it wil help you also.    The situation can and will get better.

    nothing i can do about it - zach - Nov 13th 2010

    Im a depressed negative person all the time because

    thats the way life always has been and there is nothing

    i can do about it. Taking medication wont make my life

    better. Medication will just numb me to the point that

    i stop fighting for a better life.

    Medication wont pay the bills or erase all of my bad

    memories. Medication wont make the rest of world

    treat me with respect. Medication wont make my wife a less

    stressed out person.

    I think life is a really long and difficult race . But if you make it to the end of the race a good and caring person no matter how hard your life was then you get a prize!!!!

    Yay I cant what till i die and collect my mystery Prize!!

    But there is no cheating allowed, I have to die a natural way

    un aided.

    Ha ha ha

    My brain is full of bad things, but as long as i keep them to

    myself and dont act on them i should be "OK"

    The thing that keeps me going is knowing that no matter

    how hard my life gets......My parents lives have been worse!

     

    Remember the faces of your parents always.

     

    sadness - zach - Nov 13th 2010

    To comment on the article earlier; I think it is true that you

    can control your emotions, but, you will become niether

    happy nor sad and just stiff and blank.

    I have had too much stress in my life and sometimes i just

    be like a samurai . as to say empty. really boring to be around

    nether possitive nor negative. Just Indifferent.

    I have found that no matter how hard you work nor how possitive you are in life, you just cant make your life free

    of bad bad things.   Even if you could somehow have a life

    thats semi perfect, reality will catch up with you and you

    will die in a plane crash.

     

    I have found that unintelligent people who dont think

    of others and dont pay attention to things around them

    always have more money than you do and keep you up

    at night with loud noises or partys when you are trying

    to get some sleep so you can have the energy to go to

    work at you laber intensive job and hope you dont get

    injured so you can pay your bills on time. And the whole

    time you are doing that you are thinking of others and

    trying to do the right thing.

     

    In conclusion i will say that the world has two kinds of people in it.

     

    The first is the ones who get whatever they want such

    as money, the new cell phone, the new car, the best

    house and so on. They get these things at any cost,

    dont earn them and dont care about others around them.

     

    The second kind of person is the exact opposite and

    mostly the depressed sad hard working, injured, caring and

    thinking person. This person never has a happy life even though they are good people who care and try to help.

    Even as im writing this i can hear loud neighbers at midnight who dont care that we are trying to get some sleep to go to a job where now cares about us .

    The strong deal with their problems and the weak get

    out of their problems no matter who they hurt.

     

    I am the second kind of person that no one cares about.

    I have been cooking food for people for ten years and

    im getting no where fast. Customers never tell me I did

    a good job no matter how hard I work. Customers always

    complain no how perfect things go.

    I am a pointless person that no one cares about

    and I dont care because i try to always do the right

    thing.

    P.s. My wife feels all the things i feel but cant handle it

    because she is not so strong and i am sad for her the most

    out of all things.

    I will never become a bad person just to make my life better.

    I wonder if someone is reading and understanding what im

    writing or they are simply just laughing and saying things

    like " what a whiner"  or they are doing what the rest of the

    world does...................."My Life Is Worse Than This Guys"

    or ..........  "Thats not my problem"

    And thats why people commit suicide because no one really

    cares that much about other people.

    WE ARE ALL JUST ANIMALS THAT BUILD MALLS

    life is bad always - zach - Nov 13th 2010

    I have learned that life is bad always.

    No matter what you do something will ruin your life

    Unless you are a stupid person who doesnt care

    for others around them and take you pleasure

    at someone elses cost.

    To summurize, good people who help others and

    care about whats happening around them have

    the worst lives.

    The other before mentioned bad people have really

    happy lives and an infinite suppy of money.

     

    In conclusion, I would rather be a good person with

    a horrible life.

    This is all true throughout the begining of human kind

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