Depression and Co-Counselling
Abstract: I was at a very good seminar, run by Mindfields College, called 'Breaking the cycle of depression without drugs'. I found what they were saying really useful and interesting, so I decided to write this article, summarising what they said and using their ideas to think about how to use co-counselling during periods of depression. The article discusses the connection between depression and sleep, describes the findings of a massive study of depression carried out in the States and challenges the notion that talking about your problems relieves depression. Effective treatments for depression involve breaking the rumination-depression cycle, changing the way you think, getting active and reconnecting with the outside world. Ways are suggested for how to use co-counselling to help break the cycle of depression.
I was at a very good seminar recently, run by Mindfields College, called 'Breaking the cycle of depression without drugs'. I found what they were saying really useful and interesting and other people that I've talked to about it also seemed to find it useful, so I decided to write this article, summarising what they said and using their ideas to think about how to use co-counselling during periods of depression. It seems to me it is useful for people who occasionally get down as well as those who experience more severe depression. I'd be very interested to hear other people's views on Depression and Co-Counselling and hope that this article might inspire other people to write about their ideas and experiences.
Joe Griffin, the speaker at the seminar, began by questioning the idea that depression is a biological illness. He said that in 95% of cases, psychology rather than biology causes depression. His evidence for this was the huge rise in rates of depression in recent years. He put this down to cultural changes, such as the loss of supportive networks of relationships, increased stress levels and a reduction in feelings of security, due to insecure working conditions and lack of confidence in our public institutions, such as the health service and politicians.
Depression is a REM sleep disorder. REM sleep is the name given to the type of sleep when we dream. Dreaming is normally a healthy process during which the brain is cleared of any leftover emotion from the day before, freeing it up to be ready for the challenges of the day ahead. People who are depressed, however, spend a lot of time ruminating during the day and are so emotionally aroused that this process goes wrong. REM sleep burns up a lot of energy. Normally the brain recharges itself with energy before REM sleep. However, the depressed brain does an excessive amount of REM sleep, going straight into it without first replenishing its energy levels. This leads to early morning waking, because the brain realises it's exhausting itself and interrupts the REM sleep, and a feeling of exhaustion, which increases the likelihood of more negative rumination and so the cycle continues. To counteract depression it is essential to break this rumination-poor sleep-exhaustion-depression cycle.
Underlying their approach to working with depression is a theory of human beings which they call the 'Human Givens'. All human beings have both needs and resources. They need security and space to grow, a sense of autonomy and control, to be part of a wider community, to feel they are making a contribution, to give and receive attention, to have intimacy (being accepted as they are), self esteem (via competence and achievement) and to find meaning in life (through a philosophy of life and a sense of contributing and being stretched). They also have resources: long-term memory, imagination, an ability to understand the world by matching what they experience with internally stored patterns, an observing self (which allows them to separate out from their problems), empathy and connection with others and a rational mind. When these tools are used wrongly they cause misery and mental illness. For example, in depression the imagination is misused, with people fantasising about disaster without sticking to the reality of the situation.
A huge study was carried out in the USA in 1990, which drew together thousands of research studies on depression. The study found that:
How we interpret and understand our life experiences is a major cause of depression.
When bad things happen, people who get depressed tend to take them personally
('it was my own fault', 'I'm to blame').
Depressed people tend to think globally. For example, 'one bad
thing has happened therefore my whole life's a disaster.'
They also think bad situations are stable ('things will always
be awful', 'things will never change').
For good things they think in the opposite way. Good things are nothing to
do with them ('it was just a fluke'), are only specific to that situation ('that
doesn't mean everything else is OK'), and are unstable ('it was a one-off, it
won't happen again').
Thinking that there is nothing you can do to change a situation ('I have to
put up with it', 'this is my lot', 'there's nothing I can do') and getting into
victim role is also common.
Depressed people also have a tendency to think in black and white
terms, using absolutes like 'never' and 'always' ('I'm totally useless', 'I'm
a complete failure', 'I always get it wrong').
Thinking in this way causes depression.
It is important to challenge this way of thinking and try to think more rationally
If you tend to take things too personally, write down five possible
alternative explanations for what has happened. For example, the bus driver
is rude to you, you think 'he can see I'm an awful person and I deserve it'.
Five other possible explanations are : he's having a bad day, his wife shouted
at him this morning, he's running late, he's generally a rude person or he's
got bad indigestion. All of which leave you feeling better.
For global thinking, it is important to try to remember that
if one bad thing happens there are still other parts of your life that are OK.
Remind yourself of what these are. Get a piece of paper and write down what
is good in your life.
Remember that things change, they are rarely completely stable.
It is unlikely that everything in your life is going to be bad. There will be
good things and bad things.
If you are getting into victim role, remember there
is usually something you can do to change an upsetting situation, whether this
is to change the way you view it or to change what is actually happening. If
there is really nothing you can change and it's hurting you, you can remove
Avoid black and white statements like 'never', 'always', 'completely'.
They are rarely true, substitute with 'often', 'sometimes', 'usually'. This
is more realistic. For example, rather than thinking 'I always get it wrong',
try 'I sometimes get it wrong'. Instead of 'I'm totally useless', try 'I have
strengths and weaknesses like everyone else'. JanPieter Hoogma's course on automatic
negative thinking provides much more guidance and information on how to challenge
It is clear that using co-counselling to do more negative rumination is only going to make things worse. But used in the right way, co-counselling could actually help as it provides social contact and the acceptance of another person. It can also provide the structure to make you do the things you need to do to counteract depression. So how can you use co-counselling in a positive way? Here are some suggestions.
All in all I found it a very stimulating and worthwhile day. I went originally
to support my development as a counsellor, but of course found myself applying
the information to myself. While I don't often get really down, I do tend to
ruminate about things and get stuck in negative cycles of thinking that only
make me feel bad. Now I know I'm better off going for a walk, phoning a friend,
doing some celebrations or challenging my thinking. I'd be delighted if anyone
felt like writing their thoughts about all this to the newsletter. It could
be useful for all of us.
(With thanks to Anne Denniss for discussing the article with me as I was writing it.)
Griffin, Joe and Tyrrell, Ivan (1998) Breaking the Cycle of Depression, Organising Ideas Monograph No. 3, European Therapy Studies Institute.
Griffin, Joe and Tyrrell, Ivan (2000) The APET model: Patterns in the Brain, Organising Ideas Monograph No. 4, European Therapy Studies Institute.
United States Public Health Service Agency (1996) Depression and Primary Care - Vol. 1 Detection and Diagnosis, Vol. 2 Treatment Aspect.
Willms, Siglind and Denniss, Anne (2000) Co-Counselling and the depressive mood. See CornuCopia website Literature page.