Don’t let them put the wrong brain in your head!


Over the last few posts I’ve been sharing some ideas about ways to help yourself overcome depression. I’m going to share a lot more of these ideas. They are based on decades of research on effective treatments of depression and related conditions, as well as on many years of experience as both a psychologist and an explorer of my own moods, mind, and behavior. (They will eventually be the basis of my forthcoming book, The Five Stroke Depression Cure.)

But before going on, this might be a good time to discuss a what we might call a “commercial break.”

“Commercial breaks”

TV shows are often interrupted by commercial breaks, those few minutes (or many, many, many minutes!) of advertisements that you are expected to watch as the price of seeing the show.

Commercials are annoying, but they are also powerful. They influence us more than we realize.

Marketing researchers know that the mere fact of frequent exposure to a product, even if the ads annoy you, makes you more likely to think of, and buy, that product when you are in the store or shopping online.

More insidiously, commercials are powerful ways of convincing us of “what’s real.” Commercials are used during political campaigns to get us to accept fictional models of “reality,” to believe that perfectly nice leaders are “crooks,” that tyrants and idiots are the geniuses we’ve been waiting for, and to convince whole nations to go to war or vote against their own interests. We come to believe in the worlds presented in commercials, especially if we see the same messages over and over and over again.

The main concern I want to address is what I might call commercialized “breaks” or really, mental breakdowns. The media are full of ads that try to convince you that, to be frank, you are having a mental breakdown, that you are suffering from the dreaded “chemical imbalance” of depression.

Of course, if your unhappiness, anger, fatigue, and desire to strangle your cat is really due to such a “chemical imbalance,” it stands to reason that the only way to help you with this is to “ask your doctor” to give you some kind of medication.

Big Pharma spends millions every year to insert this “abnormal brain” idea into your head. To convince you that your brain is, in effect, something it isn’t. To convince you that your brain is “abnormal.”


These are not entirely honest commercials. Depression is a complicated condition. Many things contribute to a depression — it is usually not a condition with a simple physical cause. Thinking habits and attitudes, childhood messages about your worth, as well as things such as traumas, losses, and fatigue, can contribute to a feeling that may or may even be a true clinical depression.

When we are depressed, we feel helpless. The very definition of depression, according to researcher Martin Seligman, was once described as the belief that “nothing I can do will make a difference.” Letting the multibillion dollar drug industry insert an image of a certain sort of “brain problem” into your head can be harmful. It may add to your feelings that you are helpless. You may become dependent, docile, believing that you are nothing without the meds they have. That you can’t make it on your own. What a great way to control you! (When you think about it, it’s the same technique that some abusive partners use.)

Big Pharma knows that depressed persons can be the easiest people to take advantage of. If they can convince you that you have an unbalanced, “abnormal” brain, you will be scared. Which will mean that if I’m selling you overpriced pharmaceuticals, I’ve got you right where I want you.

Because you will be desperate for my cure.

As a specialist in psychological disability, I’ve seen many people whose main psychological problem is sometimes that they have created an image of themselves as helpless. They don’t even try things to feel better anymore, don’t try to find a therapist, to change their lifestyle or exercise or read self-help books to feel better. They have settled into the slow death of passively waiting for others to provide the magical solutions to their malaise (via pills, illegal drugs, dependent relationships with parents or spouses, fairy godmothers, or disability payments).

A mental experiment

Just for fun, try to imagine the following paragraph being read out during a TV commercial for an antidepressant. Imagine it being read in that deep, serious, “caring” professional voice that always reads the drug side effects during drug ads:

Side effects of this medication may include believing that the only treatment for your condition is this medication. Other side effects can include a loss of confidence in your ability to recover on your own, a loss of motivation to try to help yourself, failure to make major life changes that you know are really overdue, and a tendency to see yourself as a permanently “sick” person or “mental patient.” All of which may cause depression to last longer and cut deeper into your soul.

What if there is a better way?

A way to learn to control your own moods, to write your own story? To have control of your own, perfectly normal and lovely and talented and creative brain?

Research has shown that medications are only a part (and not always a necessary part) of effective mental health treatment. Decades of research have shown that psychological treatments may be as effective or more effective.

As usual in this blog, this may be a decision you need to discuss with a doctor or therapist or loved one. But when you do so, discuss concerns and reservations honestly, and as assertively as you can. And remember to include in that discussion the fact that there are lots of things that you can do to manage depressions. Including dozens that I am virtually certain you don’t know about (nobody advertises “journaling” on prime time!)

Simple techniques such as the notebook tools I have just shared, can be powerful ways to treat a mood disorder. Psychotherapy, exercise, mindfulness meditation techniques, yoga, and healthy diets may also contribute a great deal toward your mental well-being. Solving “real life” problems such as stressful job situations, chronic exposure to abusive relationships, isolation, or a failure to express your truest values in your life, may also be effective.

As a last resort, watching less TV and even, in some cases, firing your doctor and finding a better one, may be more useful steps toward cure.


Taking the First Step

Replying to yesterday’s post, Valory sent in a comment:

“Taking that first small step, i.e., thinking about how to do something to feel better, rather than thinking about all the reasons you don’t feel “good/OK/happy/content,” is the most important and, sometimes , the most difficult step.”

I agree!

Very often, first steps can be the most difficult and even scary. Especially when depression is involved.

When we are depressed we may even feel paralyzed, unable to do literally anything to change our situation. In fact, the feeling that “there is nothing I can do that will make me feel better” is actually one of the primary symptoms of depression.

That is often why people with depression tend to look for solutions that require almost no effort on their parts. Because well, if “nothing I can do will help,” the only help seems like it has to come from somewhere else, right?

I even think that a lot of the popularity of antidepressant meds, both with patients and doctors, comes from their shared (yeah, doctors feel  it too!) assumption that there is nothing that the patient can do on their own that will matter. Under those conditions, taking a pill often seems like the only way to get some relief.

Now, it is often true that the meds may help people. But it can be a big mistake to assume that medications are the only, or even the best approach. Many research studies have shown that this is not true. There is a lot that a person can do on their own that may help.

I have learned a lot from my clients over the years (well, ahem, decades) of being a psychologist about ways people often learn to manage their own moods. Very often, people discover that they can at least feel a bit better by doing some fairly simple things to cope with a depression.

In future posts and my book, I’m going to list a number of things that often help people manage their moods. But the first, biggest step is often deciding that one is willing to give something a try. To experiment.

Different things work better, in different amounts, for different people. What helps me might not help you, but you might find that something you do that I’d find unhelpful, for you is actually a life-changing idea.

My first suggestion, then, is to get a notebook. Or find some way to keep some notes. I’ll tell you why soon.

Don’t Let the Depression Industry Make You Sick

I’m finishing the first draft of my self-help manual for treating depression. One of the main points of the book is that it’s often helpful to see depression as a condition that can be dramatically improved, or even cured, by doing things on your own. Such as the kinds of things you can find in any book or good website dealing with behavioral or cognitive behavioral treatments. Because it’s a well-established fact (established by real researchers, not pharma company stooges) that these techniques can work.

But right now, just a few words about the importance of not being brainwashed, so to speak, about what depression actually is. Simply put, do you see it as something you “have” (like a case of the hives, or diarrhea)? Or something that, at least in part, you DO. (Such as by adopting unhealthy habits of thought: seeing things as more dismal than they are, say)?

Here’s the problem: nowadays, despite all we know about the essential role of skill-focused treatments such as cognitive-behavior therapy in treating depression, most physicians never even mention those kind of approaches to their patients. Since most people get their mental health treatment from primary physicians, they don’t even hear about these powerful approaches.

What they do hear about, from doctors and from websites, is the old singsong: “depression is a chemical imbalance.” This is partly because people pick these things up and share them with each other, and the “chemical imbalance” thing has become a popular cliché.

The pharmaceutical industry spends millions and millions of dollars every year to market antidepressants. We are surrounded by ads which all convey the same message:  you need a pill for this. This message is so much out there that it affects what people blog about and put on their Facebook pages: everybody agrees that every and any kind of down mood is a so-called “chemical imbalance” and the treatment is medication.

This is at best a half-truth. It may be bit more true if your condition is bipolar disorder, which does seem to have more of a genetic component, and which can be more difficult to manage with psychological treatments alone. But for most other forms of depression, it’s by no means so clear, or useful to blame your poor brain for everything.

(It is also not so clear that antidepressants are as powerful and effective as the drug companies want us to believe — particularly since we’ve learned that they tend to fund “research studies” on their own drugs, but have been systematically burying any results that don’t show the drugs to be super effective.)

This business-based attempt to “define  reality” for you (because that’s what it is) is pretty typical in our society. We are often told that we need this or that thing to solve some problem we didn’t even know we had. Do you really need a car that will drive down rocky streams? How often have you used it for that, instead of for driving to Wal-mart? In fact, why would anyone “need” a sixty thousand dollar car when a twelve-thousand dollar car drives just as far and just as fast?  Exactly.

It’s the same with the depression industry.

So here is my first bit of advice: in understanding depression, try to be aware that you are being surrounded by messages that have as their purpose, sometimes, nothing more than making a lot of money for a drug company.  Money which you (either directly, or through your insurance) must pay out. As if becoming poorer should somehow make you happier.

Give your poor brain a bit of benefit of the doubt here. Put blaming your brain (which you are doing every time you repeat the mantra, “chemical imbalance”) on hold for a minute, and consider a completely different way of viewing depression: that at least in part, depression is something you do, not something you “have.”

And that any quick Google search for “cognitive behavioral techniques for treating depression” may yield as many simple, effective ideas, ideas that if tried, may give you the same 2% boost in mood that a single dose of a pill will, on average, if it is an “effective” medication. (I’ll talk more about this “2% improvement” number in later posts.)

Excerpted from the forthcoming The Five Stroke Depression Cure, by Greg Korgeski, Ph.D.,  copyright 2012