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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Depression and Happiness Set Point

Dear A. B. Curtiss,

I am in the process of writing a dissertation (in part) on mental depression as measured by a single administration of the Beck Inventory. Can you refer me to any literature addressing my hypothesis that once a set point is reached (even in an acute depressive episode), the individual is prone to future depression at the level of that set point? Thank you.

Paul J. Flaer
Stempel School of Public Health
Florida International University

Dear Paul,

I wrote an article about the connection between depression and the Yerkes-Dodson Law that might be of help to you.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law and Happiness Set-Point Determining Depression

Now that neuroscience has explained the brain mechanics involved in the upside-down U graph called the Yerkes-Dodson Law, we might use this law to understand the cyclic nature of depression. The trick to reading this essay is to remember that the U is upside down. If you don’t remember that, the essay will not make the same kind of sense.

The 1908 discovery of this law proposed that when our physiological arousal is low, as it is in the passive, disengaged, and subjective self-focus of depression, our overall thinking performance will be poor. This situation would be plotted on the bottom of the first leg of the upside down "U".

But, as we become engaged and objectively outer-focused, and thus physiologically aroused, our thinking performance begins to improve until it reaches the brain's "sweet spot" (at the top of the upside down U). Beyond that point, additional arousal produces anxiety. Then the fight-or-flight response is activated and stress chemicals flood the brain producing the well-known "chemical imbalance" associated with depression (plotted on the downward second leg of the "U").

The Yerkes-Dodson Law joins together two disparate physiological dynamics: the down curve of the inverted U shows the negative effects of both passiveness and "frazzle" on depression, the upward part reflects the energizing effect of objective focus and interaction as a means to get out of depression.

Frazzle is the emotional upset we get from an overdose of daily hassles, when the brain switches into crisis mode. You would plot passive self-focus low on the first leg of the up-side down U and frazzle low on the second leg. Since it is cyclical, depression itself would be at the bottom of both legs.

In frazzle, the heightened neural activity shifts from the rational center in the prefrontal area to the more primitive emotional midbrain. Frazzle causes the brain to give priority to self-focus over-thoughtfulness, and habitual, knee-jerk, rudimentary responses over proactive, creative, and complex ones. In this mode, the overactive emotional center blitzes the prefrontal rational area, fragmenting attention, and lessening the space available in memory to take in new information.

The more the emotional pressure builds, the less a depressed person is able to hold information in working memory, to pay attention to the outside world, or to interact with others. Stressful thinking is thus left to take on a life of its own, pumping more and more stress chemicals into the brain. The further a person goes down this incline, the more stress chemicals they produce. These chemicals are extremely hard on the metabolic processes of the body leading to the helpless, weak, and fearful feeling we know as depression.

On the other hand, the left-legged upward arc from passivity and depression to peak performance wherein our happiness set point is reached, describes an entirely different set of brain mechanisms. As the depressed person begins to turn from subjective, self-focused thinking to objective, outer-focused thinking, by use of mind exercises, or actual interaction with some project or some another person, the mind, were it to be imaged at that point would show a diffused pattern of activity.

The activity would be in numerous neural areas, not just the depressive emotional brain, because the person is thinking thoughts in addition to depressive ones.
As the depressed person becomes more outer-directed and engaged, their motivation increases, and their attention focuses. Neural activity rises to the peak of mental efficiency. Along with the new focus, cognitive abilities increase, peaking at the happiness set point at the top of the "U". At this point further arousal causes more agitation than happiness, and the downside of the depressive cycle begins.
How does this graph help a depressed person? When a person is depressed, they can start to engage themselves in small mind exercises or tasks to physiologically arouse themselves in order to get their cognitive faculties functioning better. Some mind training is part of any regular cognitive therapy for depression. My book "Brainswitch out of Depression" is almost entirely based on mind exercises to get out of depression.

When a depressed person is in the part of the depressive cycle where they are feeling good again, they need to be aware of any anxious feelings that arise. At the first sign of anxious feelings they could engage in some physical activity, or stress reduction mental exercises to offset adrenaline and other stress chemicals that will ultimately lead them back into depression.

Many depressed people already track their mood swings using such tools as "The Cyclothymia Workbook." But the lesson of the "U" graph is that depressed people should learn to become aware of smaller gradients in passivity and stress so they can take action before feelings rise to the point of actual mood change.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law predicts the cyclical nature of depression in that the same neural activity that gets you out of depression, if left to escalate on its own, will get you back into it. There's an old saying in child psychology that the time to talk to your 16-year-old daughter is when she's 12. In the same vein, a corollary to the Yerkes-Dodson Law as concerns depression would be that if we're going to manage our depression correctly, we need to spend more time in the "sweet spot" by learning to better manage both passivity and anxiety.

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