Theories on Depression

Possibly one of the worst blows an individual’s personality can suffer is that of the development of depression. I will first describe the consequences of depression, then go through processes by which depression occurs, and finally explain the role of psychological control, schemas, and self-discrepancies on depression.

The consequence of depression consists of symptoms which effect all aspects of an individual’s life- their mind, body, and behavior. In “Personality,” depression’s symptoms are classified in four groups- those that effect mood, the body, behavior, and ideation. Symptoms related to mood are a general feeling of sadness, apathy, no longer enjoying things one once used to, and boredom. Symptoms related to the body are headaches, difficulty sleeping, weight loss, indigestion and vague physical complaints. Symptoms related to behavior are unsociability, inability to work, constant worrying, weeping, complaining, slow speech, and the neglecting of one’s appearance. Symptoms related to ideation include the ideas of low self esteem, pessimism, isolation, guilt, self-blame, self-criticism, and suicidal wishes. In “Personality,” it is maintained that depressed individuals completely give up activities and lay in bed, are overcome by a feeling of sadness and worthlessness, and maintain intense negative feelings about themselves. Each depressed individual displays any combination of these symptoms in different intensities. (Mischel, Personality,302) The cognitive-expectancy approach to depression concludes that some symptoms of depression include a dysphoric mood, passivity, low self-esteem, pessimism and guilt. In general, all sources on depression would agree that depression consists of a wide range of symptoms, but that the general and main consequence of suffering from depression would be a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, and sadness.(Hollon and Garber)

The different symptoms of depression can be explained by many different theories. One theory that explains the symptoms of depression is the Diathesis-Stress Model of depression. In this model, a combination of a vulnerability factor for depression and a stressful life event will lead to depression. Some vulnerability factors are low self-esteem, the loss of a parent, an intolerance for ambiguity, and a dysfunctional attitude. Any of these vulnerability factors when combined with a stressful life event will lead to depression and its consequent symptoms. (Anderson, Lecture)

Another theory that attempts to explain the processes that lead to depression is one that explains depression in behavioral terms. In this theory, depression is caused by a relentless lack of gratification or positive outcomes (or in behavioral terms, reinforcement) for one’s behavior. The symptoms of withdrawal and isolation that depressed individuals suffer are the result of an environment that is persistently unresponsive and fails to provide positive consequences for one’s actions. According to the behavioral view of depression, there are three processes or problems that individuals endure that would lead to the development of depression. The first problem is the inability for depressed individuals to find events and activities to be gratifying. Secondly, depressed individuals tend to come from environments where reinforcement is not readily available for their adaptive behaviors. Finally, depressed individuals seem to lack the skill and ability needed to elicit positive feedback from those around them, and thus are unable to create gratifying relationships with others. These three factors will help lead to depression, as well as the fact that the only type of reinforcement that depressed individuals receive is for their depressive behavior, in the form of attention, sympathy and concern. (Mischel, Personality, 263)

Beck and Young describes depression as occurring when an individual begins to process a negative view of themselves, the environment, and the future, also called the ‘cognitive triad of depression’. Seeing oneself as being worthless, inadequate, unlovable, and deficient is equivalent to having a negative view of oneself, which is the first component of the ‘cognitive triad of depression.’ Viewing the environment as overwhelming is characteristic of a depressed individual and is also a component of the ‘cognitive triad of depression.’ Finally, viewing the future as hopeless is one of the negative views that contributes to the ‘cognitive triad of depression.’ (Beck and Young)

Mischel states that learned helplessness, a pessimistic explanatory style, and causal attributions are all processes that aid in the development of depression. Hopelessness, one of the main symptoms of depression, is an individual’s belief that they cannot control the negative outcomes and events that occur in his/her life, and leads to an individual’s encoding of oneself in helpless terms. This state, termed learned helplessness, may cause persistent feelings of apathy and despair in an individual as well. A pessimistic explanatory style is also a process by which depression develops. Individuals are more likely to view themselves as helpless when they blame themselves and their own internal qualities for the bad events that occur in their lives, and ignore the external and situational considerations that may have caused the event. This type of causal attribution, or explanations one makes for the causes of events, can be defined as the pessimistic explanatory style. More specifically, the pessimistic explanatory style maintains three components: an individual will see bad events as enduring or stable, widespread or global, and due to oneself. (Mischel, Personality, 302)

Psychological control is relevant to the topic of depression in that the lack of its presence makes it more likely that depression will occur. Suzanne A. Miller explains that those with more control over the events in their lives seem to maintain a lower propensity to suffer from depression and stress. Miller explains that control provides individuals with an upper limit by allowing them to match their own internal states, with external events. A lack of control leads to feelings of helplessness, as one loses the ability to match one’s internal desires with corresponding events. The inability to control one’s environment leads to learned helplessness, and consequently stress and depression. (Miller, Reading 11) The theory of learned helplessness, and the concept of control within the theory, was explored in experiments by Seligman. First, Seligman administered repeated treatments of electric shock to dogs, and then offered the dogs no route of escape and freedom from the frustrating and painful shocks. After a repeated number of shocks, the animal quits trying to find an escape route and starts to passively endure the shocks. Later, when an escape route is offered to the animal, the dog remains passive and continues to endure the shocks despite having the option of freedom from them. Seligman concluded from this experiment and other research that when individuals feel as if they do not have control over the events in their lives, they may develop a sense of helplessness, lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, and develop depression. (Mischel, Personality, 303)

Schemas are relevant to the topic of depression in that they are involved in the processes by which depression occurs. In the cognitive model of depression, depressed individuals are said to have early negative schemas. More specifically, individuals may build negative schemas during childhood which will be reactivated by some life event. Once activated, an individual will maintain the negative schema by encoding, categorizing and selecting information accordingly. The negative schema of life the individual maintains will create a greater propensity for one to encode life in negative terms, and therefore create a greater tendency for one to develop depression (Beck and Young)

Self-discrepancies are relevant to the topic of depression in that they are also involved in the process by which depression occurs. The cognitive model of depression maintains that depressive individuals distort their interpretation and perception of events so that they are able to maintain the negative views they have of themselves, the environment and the future. In order to keep from suffering from the anxiety caused by the acknowledgment of self-discrepancies, depressed individuals must maintain their negative view of themselves and the world around them, and do so by employing different mental processes. For example, during perception, depressed individuals make arbitrary inferences, or draw conclusions that are contrary to the objective audience in a situation. Also during the process of perception, individuals employ magnification, a process in which individuals exaggerate the importance of an event in order to abstain from the creation of any self discrepancies. Minimization, the tendency to minimize the importance of events, would be applicable to the process of a depressed individual minimizing the importance of a positive event in order to keep from developing a self-discrepancy within onself. All-or-none thinking, the tendency to perceive situations in absolute terms, is also another process that aids a depressed individual in avoiding self-discrepancies by refusing to allow the individual to see any positive aspects about a situation that could contain good and bad points. (Hollon and Garber)

Evidently, there are many ideas and theories concerning the specific processes that are involved in the development of depression. I merely have summarized a few theories that have been proposed regarding the process of depression and have shown how psychological control, schemas and self-discrepancies play a role in these processes. Hopefully, psychologists’ investigation for how exactly depression develops will help us understand what exactly must be done to help cure the millions of people that currently suffer and will in the future suffer from depression.

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