Depression’s Vicious Cycle & The 5 Factors That Fuel It

Quotes about depression's vicious cycle: "Depression is such a vicious, vicious cycle, which is one of the reasons it's so hard to break out of." Quotes about depression's vicious cycle: "Depression is such a vicious, vicious cycle, which is one of the reasons it's so hard to break out of."

As we constantly hear from members of The Depression Project's 3,000,000+ person social media community, it can be extremely, extremely difficult to break out of a depressive episode. And, a major reason why is because as you can see in the diagram below, depression operates in a vicious cycle.

A Diagram Of Depression's Vicious Cycle


On that note, in this blog post, we'd like to share with you a free excerpt from our book This Is How You Overcome Depression, which breaks down in detail:

  1. The "five aspects of depression" that fuel depression's vicious cycle - i.e. your thoughts, emotions, behaviours, environment and physiological factors;
  2. How, rather than operating in isolation, each of these five factors of depression fuel each other to create depression's vicious cycle;
  3. What you need to do in order to break out of depression's vicious cycle.

As soon as you're ready, let's get started.

This Is How You Overcome Depression

Free excerpt

Based on the cognitive behavioural therapy model1, there are five aspects of depression that fuel it's vicious cycle. On that note, let's now flesh out what depression actually looks like with respect to each of these factors.

1. Your Thoughts

As you’ve no doubt unfortunately experienced, struggling with depression usually involves battling negative thoughts2. While these negative thoughts can come in many forms, some particularly common ones include, for example:

  • Worthless Thoughts: For example, “I’m a loser”, “I’m unlovable”, “I’m worthless”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m lazy”, “I’m useless”, “I deserve to suffer”, “I’m not worthy of anything good happening to me”, and/or “everybody else is better and more important than I am”.

  • Hopeless Thoughts: For example, “nothing good will ever happen to me”, “I have no future”, “there’s no point in doing anything”, “everything I do will be a failure”, “I will never feel happy again”, “I will never overcome depression”, “none of my dreams will ever come true”, and/or “I will never be free of my pain”.

  • Worrying Thoughts: These tend to occur when you fixate on something bad happening, and then convince yourself that when that bad thing does inevitably happen, it will be catastrophic. These “bad events” can be particular to you – such as you losing your job; your partner leaving you; or even much smaller, relatively trivial events like making a mistake at work or saying something a bit silly in a social setting, for instance. Additionally, these “bad events” can also be more macro in nature, such as the danger of climate change, the possibility of a war breaking out, political and/or civil unrest, or an election result, for example. Regardless of what the triggering incident or situation is, though, worrying thoughts tend to take a form along the lines of: “if this happens, it will be a catastrophe”, “I will never recover from this happening”, and/or “this will completely destroy me if it happens”.

  • Negative Thoughts About Your Impact On Loved Ones: For example, “I’m such a burden because I suffer from depression”, “I’m such a drain for other people to deal with”, “they can’t possibly enjoy spending their time with me”, “they must regret ever becoming my friend / partner / spouse”, and/or “their life would be so much better without me in it”.

  • Rumination: This is where you dwell on something negative or painful that happened (often many years ago) which you’re still struggling to let go of. It can include, for example, beating yourself up over a mistake you once made, lamenting a break-up that happened, or feeling ashamed of something you did which you’re not proud of.

Additionally, when it comes to all of these types of negative thoughts, the more severe your depression is and/or the longer you struggle with it for, the closer your negative thoughts are likely to be to negative beliefs – in the sense that you’re highly attached to your negative thoughts and you believe them to be true.

2. Your Emotions

Of course, struggling with depression also involves dealing with difficult, painful emotions3. As is the case with negative thoughts, these painful emotions can be different for different people – however, they most commonly consist of:

  • Feeling Intense, Excruciating Misery – to such an extent that life may no longer seem worth living.

  • Feeling Worthless – sometimes so much so that you don’t see how your partner, your friends or your family members could love you.

  • Feeling Unmotivated – including loss of interest in almost everything that you used to enjoy.

  • Feeling Numb – in the sense that you’re completely disconnected from the world around you, and bereft of being able to feel anything at all – to such an extent that rather than “living”, it seems as if you are merely “existing”.

  • Feeling Irritable – due to dealing with so many difficult emotions. For this reason, you’re also much more likely than you otherwise would be to get frustrated and snap over something small.

  • Feeling Shame – for example, because you believe that only “weak” people struggle with depression, or because you’re embarrassed about not being able to do some (or a lot) of the things that you used to do before you started struggling with depression (such as maintaining a job, cleaning the house or showering, for instance).

  • Feeling Misunderstood / Lonely / Isolated – most commonly, because nobody around you seems to understand what you’re going through.

  • Feeling Regret – if a contributing factor of your depression is a past mistake you made.

  • Feeling Grief – if a contributing factor of your depression is a devastating loss. Additionally, it’s common for people with depression to experience grief due to feeling as if their life is turning out (or has turned out) very differently to how they’d thought it would.

  • Feeling Hopeless – sometimes to such an extent that you can’t envision life ever getting better.

3. Your Behaviours

Thirdly, depression is likely to have a significant “behavioural impact” on you. This can happen in many ways, including:

  • A Decreased Ability To Function3 – to such an extent that when depression is at its most severe, even simple tasks like having a shower, dressing or getting out of bed can feel like climbing a mountain.

  • Social Withdrawal4 – due to, for example:

    • Having no motivation or energy to leave the house.

    • Feeling far too miserable to be able to fake a smile and pretend that everything is “fine”.

    • Not knowing how to articulate how awful you’re feeling, and/or how to explain all of the debilitating ways that depression is affecting you.

    • Not wanting your loved ones to see you feeling so depressed.

    • Because you want to “protect” / “shield” your loved ones from your pain.

    • Because you’re worried that people will judge- or think less of you for having depression – particularly if your depression has led you to behave in ways that you’re ashamed of (like not showering, for instance).

    • Because you don’t feel as if you currently have the capacity to be the friend that you think your loved ones deserve – such as someone who can, for example, have a pleasant conversation with them, be funny and make them laugh, be happy and celebrate their wins with them, and/or support them through their own struggles in life.

  • Shutting Down And Being Non-Communicative – a type of social withdrawal, this is where, due to the debilitating intensity of your symptoms in a given moment in time, you completely withdraw from a conversation / social setting and stop communicating entirely. Shutting down in this way most commonly occurs when you become so consumed by your depression that continuing to interact with other people just becomes too much for you, and/or when you become lost for words to explain your depression and all the ways it’s affecting you.

  • Difficulty Concentrating And/Or Remembering Things3 – which can occur due to the overwhelming intensity of your depressive symptoms, and/or to being constantly bombarded by negative thoughts which are severely distracting you.

  • Comfort Eating3 / Alcohol Abuse5 – which often occurs as a way of trying to cope with depression.

  • Self-Harm6 – this can sadly take place for a number of reasons, including:

    • Because it’s a way of punishing yourself for something you feel you’ve done wrong.

    • Because the physical pain that’s experienced through self-harm is a preferable distraction to your more intense mental pain.

    • Self-harm can also be a way of trying to release pent-up negative emotions that you may struggle to release through other, more healthier means.

4. Your Environment

As we hear very, very frequently from members of The Depression Project's community, depression can also impact your “environment” as well – and by this, we mean the state of your physical surroundings (such as your living quarters), and also your “life situation” / your “situational environment” (such as your relationships, your job, your finances, etcetera). In particular, according to members of The Depression Project's community, some common environmental impacts of depression include:

  • Because simple, mundane tasks like doing the dishes, vacuuming, and cleaning up in general can become too much for someone in the midst of a severe depressive episode, it’s common for people with depression’s home to be much more untidy than it otherwise would be.

  • Many people with depression also find themselves facing an overwhelming to-do list – which continuously mounts due to them feeling too weighed down by depression to be able to complete it at their usual pace.

  • Because depression can impact a person’s ability to concentrate and function, it can hinder their capacity to work, and therefore contribute to them having financial difficulties.

  • Because depression can lead to social isolation, it can result in the gradual erosion of a person’s relationships, and to them feeling lonely and even more depressed as a result.

  • For a multitude of reasons, depression can also exacerbate existing problems in a marriage or a relationship, and it can also trigger new problems that weren’t initially present.

5. Your Physiology

Last but not least, depression can also involve chemical and/or physical changes that take place in your brain and body. For example:

  • A chemical imbalance in the brain7.

  • Exhaustion – which is an extremely common symptom of depression3.

  • Difficulty sleeping3 (in spite of feeling exhausted) – often due to having so many negative thoughts and/or painful emotions filling your head that you struggle to wind down and fall asleep, and/or as a side effect of an anti-depressant medication.

  • Excess sleep3 – on the other hand, some people find that depression causes them to sleep far more than they otherwise would.

  • Sexual dysfunction8.

  • Body aches and pains3.

  • Headaches and/or loss of appetite3.

How Each Of These Five Aspects Of Depression Interact To Fuel A Vicious Cycle

Like we've said, each of these five aspects of depression do not operate in isolation. Rather, they fuel each other to create a vicious cycle:

As this vicious cycle shows, these five aspects of depression can each fuel each other in many different combinations and permutations. Some common examples include:

  • An environmental trigger (e.g. being criticised by someone) -> which fuels a negative thought (e.g. “I’m a loser”) -> which fuels a painful emotion (e.g. misery, shame, worthlessness) -> which fuels a negative behaviour to try to deal with the painful emotion(s) (e.g. drinking alcohol) -> which leads to a physical reaction that further fuels depression (e.g. decreased brain serotonin, a hangover, less energy) -> which fuels more negative thoughts, and so the cycle continues.

  • A behaviour (e.g. prolonged social withdrawal due to feeling consumed with depression) -> which fuels an environmental change (e.g. a fractured connection with friends) -> which fuels a painful emotion (e.g. loneliness) -> which fuels negative thoughts (e.g. “I’m such a loser because I have no friends”) -> which fuels more painful emotions (e.g. misery, worthlessness, lack of confidence) -> which fuels more social withdrawal, and so the cycle continues.

  • A negative thought / belief (e.g. “I’m weak / a failure for struggling with depression”) -> which fuels a painful emotion (e.g. shame) -> which fuels a behaviour (e.g. not telling anyone about your depression because you feel too ashamed) -> which fuels more painful emotions (e.g. feeling misunderstood, lonely, isolated) -> which fuels more negative thoughts (e.g. “my life is terrible”) -> which fuels more painful emotions (e.g. misery) -> which reinforces the negative thought that your life is terrible, and so the cycle continues.

  • An emotion (e.g. feeling unmotivated) -> which leads to a behaviour (e.g. putting off getting help / beginning therapy / reading self-help books) -> which leads to worsened depressive symptoms (including feeling even more unmotivated), and so the cycle continues.

Of course, these are just a few examples – sadly, there are literally countless more – but as you can see, each of the five aspects of depression all fuel each other, and create a vicious, vicious cycle. This explains why depression is so difficult to break out of, and why if there isn’t any intervention to stop depression’s vicious cycle, your depression is unfortunately likely to get worse and worse over time.

What You Need To Do To Break Out Of Depression's Vicious Cycle And Overcome This Illness

In light of all of the above, let us now make the following very, very important point:

Because there are five different aspects of depression, and because these five aspects all operate in a vicious cycle to continuously fuel your depression, then in order to overcome this illness, it’s essential that you “fight back” against depression at each of these five “battlegrounds”, so to speak.

Or, to put it another way ...

If you DON'T “fight back” against depression at each of these five “battlegrounds”, then unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever win the “war” against it.

We believe it's critically important that you understand this, so to clearly illustrate this point, let’s now have a look at the common example of taking medication. Before we begin, though, we'd like to emphasise that anti-depressants can indeed play a role in helping you overcome depression. This is through:

  1. Altering your brain chemicals in a positive way, and therefore helping you to “fight back” against depression at the “physiology battleground”.

  2. As a result of helping you “fight back” against depression at the “physiology battleground”, taking medication will also help to slow the vicious cycle of depression that we just showed you – which means that indirectly, it can also have a positive effect on your thoughts, your emotions, your behaviours and your environment.

In saying that, though, if taking medication is your only way of fighting back against depression, then it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever beat this illness – because taking medication is only directly addressing one out of five aspects of your depression. In other words:

  • When It Comes To Your Thoughts: Medication can’t magically turn your negative thoughts into positive thoughts; it can’t all of a sudden make you stop worrying about the future or ruminating about the past; and it can’t eradicate any negative core beliefs you have about yourself (such as “I’m a loser”) and instantly replace them with positive core beliefs (such as “I’m a good person”, “I am worthy of love” or “I am enough”).

  • When It Comes To Your Emotions: Medication can’t teach you how to regulate your emotions so that you feel more pleasurable emotions and less painful emotions; it can’t magically make you stop hating yourself and instead start loving yourself; it can’t all of a sudden stop you from feeling misunderstood, lonely and isolated; it can’t help you come to terms with feelings of grief over a loved one passing; and it can’t all of a sudden fill you with hope.

  • When It Comes To Your Behaviours: Anti-depressants aren’t a “magic pill” that make you automatically stop engaging in self-sabotaging behaviours and start engaging in healthy behaviours. For example, taking medication doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll stop people pleasing, stop negatively comparing yourself to others, or stop resorting to avoidance behavioural patterns. Similarly, taking medication doesn’t mean that you’ll all of a sudden start exercising, practicing mindfulness, or reading self-help books, for instance.

  • When It Comes To Your Environment: Medication can’t solve any difficult and challenging environmental factors in your life that may be contributing to your depression. For example, taking anti-depressant medication won’t suddenly fix a toxic relationship; it won’t suddenly make the people you’re surrounded by stop treating you badly; it won’t suddenly make you start enjoying the job you hate; it won’t suddenly resolve any financial difficulties that you’re having; and it won’t suddenly help you come to terms with war, climate change, or any of the other devastating events that are taking place in the world.

For these reasons, then like we said, while taking medication can indeed be helpful, if it's your only way of fighting back against depression, then unfortunately, it’s very, very difficult to ever beat this illness – since you’ll only be directly combating depression at one out of the five battlegrounds where it’s attacking you (or put another way, you’ll only be directly treating one out of the five aspects of your depression).

Like we said beforehand, because of the way depression's vicious cycle works, in order to overcome depression, it's extremely important that you fight back against it at each of the five battlegrounds where it's attacking you.

End of free excerpt

From the bottom of our hearts, we really hope that you found this free excerpt from This Is How You Overcome Depression informative.

All our love,

The Depression Project Team.


P.S. If you found the above free book excerpt helpful, then click the button below to learn more about This Is How You Overcome Depression, in which - among other things - you'll learn how to fight back against depression at each of the five battlegrounds that fuel its vicious cycle!