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It’s normal to get depressed. Let’s face it, a lot of life experience IS depressing. Depression that is severe enough to be considered a cli...

Turning Off Depression Triggers

It’s normal to get depressed. Let’s face it, a lot of life experience IS depressing. Depression that is severe enough to be considered a clinical malady is a state that persists for long periods. It’s not the initial depression that is the problem, but rather its sustained nature.

So, the issue is what sustains the depression. I contend that continual rehearsal of negative emotions, which can be done explicitly or implicitly, is the driver of clinical depression. I don’t know if psychologists agree or not, but as a neuroscientist I know that rehearsal of thoughts and feelings strengthens the mediating synapses and circuits.

Obviously, consciously rehearsing bad events and our depressive response will help to cement depression in neural circuitry. But even implicit rehearsal can have the same effect. This being the case, it seems important to focus on the triggers that activate recall, explicit or implicit, of stored representations of depressed feelings. Bad events and their associated feelings are stored in memory. As long as such memory is stored and not activated in recall, little harm is done. But environmental and mental cues can dredge depression from its hidden stores. Repeated retrieval is what makes depression pervasive and persistent.

So, it would seem important to focus on ways to block the retrieval cues. Yet, part of the problem is in recognizing what these cues are, as they are frequently buried do deep in memory that the cues are no longer available for explicit recognition. Yet, subconsciously, the cues still wrench the sadness from memory storage.

One solution that sometimes works is to change environments. Even if you don’t know what the depression cues are, you know they can somehow be embedded in the current environment and lifestyle. Maybe the problem is with some of the people you run around with. People who drag you down are not all that hard to spot. Avoid them. Maybe the problem is with your career or work environment, which has saddled you with depressing experiences from time to time. Staying in that environment assures that depression triggering cues will be encountered again.

It is not always feasible to change environment or lifestyle. You can’t abandon those you love just because
they depress you. You may not be able to change jobs or careers for economic or other practical reasons. In those cases, it helps to promote recall of happy experiences as a substitute.

Common experience and a great deal of formal research have shown the usefulness of “happy thoughts” as a way to boost positive mood. Here, the trick is to enhance recall of the buried memories of happy experiences. The same neural mechanisms involved in rehearsal and recall of depressing experiences are involved. But, you can’t be sad and happy at the same time. Thus, triggers that recall happy experiences do so at the expense of triggers that would trigger depressive feelings.

Recent research emphasizes the importance of memory cues as therapy for depression. In this study, clinically depressed patients were asked to recall 15 positive memories. Patients in one group, the controls, were asked to rehearse these positive experiences by grouping them according to similarities. Patients in the experimental group were taught to use a mnemonic technique to rehearse the positive memories. This technique, the ancient “method-of-loci” method, entails associating a mental image of an item to be remembered to an image of a well-known physical location. For example, to remember a grocery list, you might use location of objects in your car. You might picture a banana in your side view mirror, apples on the steering wheel, bread on the dashboard, cereal in the rear-view mirror. As you drive to the grocery store, you rehearse the items in terms of their mental images and locations within the car. There are many powerful permutations of this method that I explain in my recent book, Memory Power 101.  

Results of the experiment showed that both memorization methods were equally effective when recall was tested right after the training. But a week later, experimenters made a surprise phone call to each patient and asked them to recall the happy thoughts again. This time, clearly better recall occurred in the patients who had used the method-of-loci method. If we can generalize these results, it means that patients can alleviate their depression if they train their brains to be more effective at remembering positive events. This can be done at any stage of life, as we all have a past and there typically were some good moments in that past. Whether you use a method-of-loci method to remember happy times or some other memory device, your life should be more satisfying and less depressing when you consciously train your brain to remember the good times.


Dalgleish, T. et al. (2013). Method-of_Loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate access to self-affirming
personal memories for individuals with depression. Clinical Psychological Science. Feb. 12, DOI: 10.1177/21677026112468111.