The depression habit spiral

Depression is most powerful when you believe it is inevitable and unchangeable. It starts to lose power once you realise that many of its characteristics are habits that depression has pulled you into – and like any habits they can be replaced with better ones!

How does a habit spiral work?

The biological, social and psychological factors contributing to depression interact with one another in a complex self-reinforcing spiral related to how we cope with stress. This is easier to understand if you recognise that any habit is made up of a self-reinforcing interaction between:

  • feelings/mood
  • thoughts
  • actions
  • biology
  • and context

To illustrate, let’s consider the habit spiral which reinforces a daily habit of brushing our teeth. In the context of scientific evidence that dirty teeth rot and fall out and brushing teeth prevents tooth decay, a common thought/belief is that teeth need to be brushed regularly. This leads to the action of daily tooth brushing, supporting the biology of healthy, gleaming teeth, which in turn leads to a feeling of confidence about chewing and smiling. This then reinforces the belief that teeth need to be brushed regularly… and so on.

The depression habit spiral in action

  1. Context:
    Cynicism, sense of meaninglessness, unattainable social values →
  2. Thoughts:
    Negative, pessimistic depressed thinking habits →
  3. Biology:
    Chronic stress, depleted mood chemicals, fatigue →
  4. Actions:
    Disturbed sleep, lethargy and inactivity, social withdrawal →
  5. Mood:
    Low, depressed, numb, lacking motivation

Breaking the cycle

Making a small change at any point in the spiral can help to turn things around, for example, by making small changes to depressed behaviour through increasing pleasurable activities. See ‘Self help first steps’ in the Tackle Depression section for the easiest immediate strategies for tackling depression.

Once you have broken into the downward depression spiral, you can start to choose longer-term strategies to build a more positive, life-enhancing habit spiral in its place. Changing habits is not a magical, overnight process. But simply realising that your depression habits can be changed – in small, manageable steps – is the first step in making your life less cosy for depression.

Depressed thinking

Depressed thinking is a key factor in the depression habit spiral. Understanding what depressed thinking is and challenging depressed thinking habits are key strategies in building longer-term resistance to depression and its effects.

Next: Depressed behaviour

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My depression spiral


Identifying depressed thinking
Depression in a nutshell
Self help first steps