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Mood Change Doesn’t Happen Quickly

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

I fell into a small depressive mood the other day. Though I’m not generally prone to depression (being more of an anxiety sort of guy), this sort of thing does happen from time to time. Usually, I’m able to simply shrug them off within a day. However, this one decided to stick around for a while. It sat on me for about two days, staining my perceptions and giving a negative cast to life. I found myself ruminating; running self-critical thoughts over and over like a tape loop. I became extra-sensitive to criticism, restless and unhappy. I’m sure that many readers out there will know exactly what I’m talking about.

For some of the time during this episode, I was aware that I was feeling down, and thinking that I could talk myself out of it. But I couldn’t seem to make that happen. Practicing what I preach, I did cognitive restructuring therapy exercises with myself. I ran through disputing scenarios, where I’d capture a negative thought and examine it looking to see if it was exaggerated or based on unrealistic assumptions and comparisons. Most of them were. I made mental corrections. It helped, but it didn’t make the mood go away instantly. It was like my thoughts cleared up, but not the depressive feeling. The overall tone of touchiness persisted.

After a while of this, the physical mood just fell away. This was helped along very much, I think, by the fact that I was out with my family, in the moment with them, doing fun things on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

After this mood episode was over I realized that, for a moment there, I had expected, erroneously, that because I understood the cognitive techniques for how to change mood that this would make it possible for me to simply think my mood away. Sometimes you can get away with that sort of thing, but, in hindsight, it is clear that for heavier moods, this is not how it tends to work.

With exceptions for the bipolar rapid cycling folks noted, non-superficial depressive moods tend to have momentum. Like loaded trucks on downgrades, they want to keep going in the direction they have been going. They are hard to steer. The breaks don’t work so well. Such moods do change over time, but they usually do so gradually, kind of like the weather.  What I experienced was comparatively lightweight.  It is much harder for people experiencing a full Major Depression .  

Here is an important insight to keep in mind for people who are struggling with depressed mood.  It may seem obvious but it isn’t, which is why it is worth stating. It is unrealistic to expect that your depressed mood will go away as soon as you begin therapy. Moods which are sufficiently heavy enough to benefit from therapy have an inertia which must be overcome, and even the best state-of-the-art treatments for depression require time and practice in order to make this happen. If you expect instant change, you will generally be disappointed.

The above is generally true not only for psychotherapy, but for medication therapy as well. It takes several weeks in most cases for antidepressant drugs to have their effect.

It’s not just clients who need to keep this in mind; it’s therapists too. We therapists have useful mood-regulation techniques to offer clients. Mood alteration is what cognitive therapy and cognitive restructuring was invented for, after all. Similarly, detachment from bondage to mood is part of what mindfulness and contemplative techniques now becoming popular were designed to accomplish. There is a temptation to think that because these techniques are known to work that they should work quickly. There is a temptation to label clients who struggle to make these techniques work as resistant; not really wanting to change. To succumb to such temptations is, however, to fail to keep the inertial nature of depressive mood firmly in mind, and also to engage in un-useful blaming.  We all know this intellectually, but we sometimes forget it emotionally.  

Reminding yourself about this sort of thing helps keep you humble, and helps you stay motivated to do the repetative work that is necessary to promote positive change.  Think about this when you are working on changing moods (either your own, or with their consent, someone else’s) and perhaps you’ll avoid feeling like a failure when things don’t happen quickly.

Keep Reading By Author Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
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