The “depression trap” is a term that describes the ways in which feeling depressed leads us to behave in ways the create more depression. When we are depressed we usually don’t feel like doing much or we intentionally avoid situations because they are likely to upset us. Let’s look at an example.
Consider “Dave” a 17-year old boy whose parents noticed he was becoming increasingly withdrawn over the past year. At first, Dave reported feeling angry with his group of friends. Weeks later, he seemed to have no interest in spending time with anyone. Although he had previously been dating a girl in his class, he stopped returning her calls. Eventually, she stopped calling. Last year, Dave was a star athlete on the track team, but this year he said he didn’t want to run at all. As soon as school was over he went home and locked himself in his room. His parents tried to reason with Dave, but their conversations didn’t seem to be reaching him.
To better understand this example, let’s focus only on the behaviors that Dave avoided doing or stopped doing as a result of his depression.
- Dave doesn’t tell his parents what’s going on.
- Dave stopped returning calls from his girlfriend.
- Dave avoided his friends.
- Dave stopped exercising.
The term “trap” refers to the idea that Dave did each of these things in an effort to feel better, but ultimately ended up feeling worse.
As is so often the case with teenagers, it’s really hard to know exactly what happened that started all of this. We saw that Dave was having problems with his friends, but we don’t know exactly what the problem was or why he stopped talking to them altogether. This is probably not by accident. Dave didn’t tell his parents, or probably anyone, what happened because he didn’t want to think about it. For a teen, problems in the social group can be devastating. To discuss the problem, Dave would have to face his feelings of devastation and it’s so painful. He figured that he could avoid these feelings if he didn’t think about the problem or discuss it. Unfortunately, this didn’t turn out to be true. The more Dave tried to avoid these feelings, the worse he seemed to feel.
Likewise, Dave avoided trying to reconcile with his friend and his girlfriend for the same reason. He was probably very angry and/or very hurt by the falling out and he thought that talking to his friend or girlfriend about what had happened would only make him feel worse.
Finally, Dave stopped running track because he was fatigued and lost motivation. Dave knew that he usually felt more energized after track practice, but he couldn’t gather up the motivation to run each day. By avoiding track practice, Dave was trying to conserve his energy. Over time, this led him to feel even more depressed and have even less energy.
This is a vicious cycle. The worse Dave feels, the more things he avoids; the more he avoids, the worse he feels.
To read this and blame Dave for his depression would be a mistake. In many ways, Dave is using the skills that he has been taught by our culture. We’re often taught that unpleasant feelings are “bad” and that a sign of good health is to be free of bad feelings. So when Dave avoids talking to his girlfriend, friends and parents, it’s because he doesn’t want to feel the pain associated with his social problems. He’s doing exactly what he’s been instructed to by our culture; avoid and minimize painful internal experiences. Furthermore, many of his decisions make perfect sense in the moment. If I woke you up at 3am and said “let’s go for a run” you’d probably respond “not now, I’m exhausted.” Because Dave feels exhausted all the time, he never feels like running.
The problem is that Dave got caught in the depression trap. The more he struggles, the deeper he sinks.
Here is a brief exercise you can do in order to figure out whether depression has your teen stuck in its trap or not. The questions below are a good place to start. (You may print out this page and use the blank space to fill it in).
Since you began noticing a change in your teen, has he or she been avoiding activities they used to enjoy? Try to identify three behaviors that your teen has stopped doing or has been doing less of:
What unpleasant emotional experience might your teen tries to avoid by avoiding or stopping the above activities?
For instance, if your teen says he or she doesn’t want to go to a birthday party. Rather than think, “Why doesn’t he/she want to go?” We might consider…
- Is there a person at the party they’re wanting to avoid?
- Would going to the party make them feel sad?
- Would going to the party make them feel scared or uncomfortable?
- Are they too tired to go the party?
- If you have any guesses as to what your teen might be trying to avoid, write them in the space below
Now pick one of the activities you identified above that you think would be least difficult to discuss with your teen or teen, and try to have an open and honest discussion about what they might be avoiding. If your first attempt does not succeed, this is natural. If your second attempt does not succeed, this is natural too. By continuing to try to reach out to your teen, you are showing them that you care about them. You are also showing them that you have no difficulty approaching unpleasant or difficult experiences, and that its okay to approach, rather than to avoid, unpleasant internal experiences.
101 Parenting: Quick tips to remember
- Address this with your teen alone rather than in front of others.
- Set aside time for the discussion rather than having it “on the fly.”
- With teens, it is immensely helpful to do another activity while talking. You couldsay, “I’d really like to talk to you about something, could we go for a walk and talk?”
- It’s easy to talk while playing catch, hiking, or grabbing a milk-shake.
- Avoid trying to talk while watching TV as it can be too much distraction.
- With younger teens, it can be helpful to provide possible explanations for them as they may not know how to verbalize their fears. You might say: “I wonder if you are afraid that you won’t have anything to say at the party. I know if I felt that way, I wouldn’t feel like going either.” If they say no, then just continue feeding them possible ideas until one seems to fit… “Now that I think of it, I remember that you and Jack got into an argument at school. Are you worried that Jack will be there and you’ll feel angry?”
- With older teens you can be more open-ended “is there something your worried about happening or not happening at the party?”
- Teenagers are used to having adults try to fix their problems, avoid the temptation because … If the teen is feeling hopeless about fixing the problem then there is no motivation to tell you. If it can’t be fixed, why bother telling a person who thinks they can fix it? Also, by swooping in to try to fix the problem too quickly, we inadvertently teach teens that unpleasant feels are “bad” and we need to get rid of them as quickly as possible. This is part of the depression trap!
- With all teens, its helpful to come from a place of curiosity and concern rather than problem solving…“I want to know more about what’s going on because I care about you” rather than “If you tell me the problem, I can help you fix it.”
- This last tip is really hard, but do your best to ask the question out of curiosity rather than accusation. For instance, you could say something like: “I really just want to know what might be bothering Dave” rather than “I think Dave is upset because Jonny said something nasty to him.”
- If your teen really won’t give you anything to work with, ask other parents and their teacher, or camp counselor, if they know of any reason why your teen is isolating or avoiding. Have they heard other kids talking about them?
The “Depression Trap” is a term that describes vicious cycle of depression. As people try harder and harder to get away from unpleasant experiences, their world shrinks and their depression worsens. If your child is experiencing depression, think about what activities they may be avoiding and see if you can have a discussion with them about what unpleasant emotional experience they may be trying to avoid by skipping the activity. Try to be open, honest and avoid the temptation to rush in with a solution. Remember that we often do not succeed when we are first learning a skill. As far as skills go, learning how to navigate the complex world of personal interactions is one of the more challenging ones. With patience, kindness and persistence, your child will open up to you and you may be able to help break the depression trap.