Overcoming Depression

The Big Ideas

  • Our brains contain two minds – an emotional mind and a thinking mind, which can increase or dampen emotion.
  • Our brains have three major systems that regulate emotions. The drive system helps us seek out things we need, and it involves feelings of motivation, energy, and optimism. The soothing system helps us connect with other people, and it involves feeling of contentment and peacefulness. The threat-protection system helps us avoid danger and seek safety, and it involves feelings of anger, anxiety, and disgust.
  • All three systems are necessary to guide us through life, but in depression, the threat-detecting system becomes overly active. We can heal ourselves by restoring balance among the three systems.
  • Mindfulness, which is a way of paying attention to the present moment, can help us work on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which, in turn, can change our brain states.

In a Nutshell

When people are depressed, their brains physically change, dampening positive emotions, and amplifying emotions that help people respond to danger. Rather than thinking of depression as simply a disease, we can think of it as a state of mind that originally may have had some evolutionary advantage.

We can change our physical brain states by working on our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Important skills to overcome depression – or to enhance life in general – include mindfulness, breathing, relaxation, imagination, and developing a compassionate mind. All of these are learnable skills.

We can learn to develop supportive relationships with ourselves, treating ourselves compassionately and not criticizing or bullying ourselves. We can learn to stop ruminating. We can learn to deal with specific problems, such as the need for approval in relationships, shame, guilt, anger, frustration, and disappointments.


“We have evolved to be very responsive to kindness – from the day we are born to the day we die. Kindness soothes the threat system and indicates helpful resources. This in turn reduces the “go to the back of the cave” protection strategy. This is why it is so important to learn self-kindness, because your brain is designed to respond to it.”

IMEO (In My Eudaimonian Opinion)

Overcoming Depression combines cognitive-behavioral therapy with mindfulness and self-compassion. Although the book is aimed at people who are depressed, it contains a wealth of information and exercises to practice mindfulness, self-compassion and cognitive-therapy techniques that anyone, depressed or not, who wants to enhance their life might be able to use. It might be especially useful for someone who is already interested in cognitive therapy and mindfulness and would like to see ways to use the two approaches together.

The 600 page plus book contains four sections: understanding depression, learning how to cope, developing supportive relationships with ourselves, and dealing with particular problem areas. The book is full of detailed exercises. While reading the book cover to cover and doing all the exercises would be a worthwhile project, it would take a lot of time. You could also benefit from the book by dipping into parts that interest you, without trying to tackle all of it at once- that can be overwhelming!

The exercises are the strong point of the book. They are exceptionally intriguing, varied and very clearly described. Thumbing through the book and picking exercises that appeal to you would be a great way to use the book without having to make a big time commitment. While the book is not aimed specifically at parents, it can help parents develop skills that will improve all their relationships, including those with their children.

Take action, humanoid!

  • Soothing rhythmic breathing : Sit comfortably with your back straight. Gently focus your attention on your breathing. Observe how your belly expands and contracts. Experiment with breathing a little faster and a little slower until you find a rhythm that feels natural and soothing to you. Doing this exercise when you feel stressed can help you feel calmer.
  • Generating feelings of compassion: Start with soothing rhythmic breathing, as described above. Then imagine that you are wise. Imagine how it feels to be wise. Then imagine you are strong and how it feels to be strong. Imagine you are warm and kind, and imagine how that feels. Imagine that you are non-condemning, and imagine how that feels. It doesn’t matter if you think you really have these qualities or not – this is all about using your imagination, and simply imagining these qualities as beneficial. Finally, adopt a kind and gentle facial expression, and notice how that feels. Some kids might enjoy using their imaginations in this exercise, and adults and children might enjoy doing it together at home or in a classroom.
  • Compassion under the covers: This is a great way to develop your compassionate self if you are short on time. When you are in bed, before you go to sleep or right after you wake up, spend a few moments doing the exercises above. Do soothing rhythmic breathing, put on a kindly facial expression, and imagine yourself as wise, strong, kind, and nonjudgmental. You can also do this exercise at odd moments that might otherwise be wasted, such as when you are waiting on line at the supermarket.
  • Pretend that you are an alien for a day, that you are visiting from a planet that is very dark and quiet. Everything you see and everything you hear is new and amazing to you, the alien tourist. This allows you to see things in a new, fresh, and exciting light. (This one is clearly my favorite, humanoid!)

Overcoming Depression: A Self-Help Guide using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques
Author: Paul Gilbert
Publication Date:2009

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