Escaping the Right-Brain Trap

If there is one way that depressed people make you feel, it is that you cannot reach them. Try as you might, the depressed person seems to be stuck in an emotional swampland, with no sense of the way out. If you try to give the depressed person a brighter perspective, he or she is likely to look at you as though you just don’t get it.

The catch-22 of dealing with depressed people is that the only way they would feel totally understood would be if you agreed that the situation was hopeless. This of course is not helpful to depressed people. But why do they not reach out for the offered hand of hope? Why do they seem to believe that things cannot change?

Call it the brain trap. In the book, Why Love Matters, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt cites brain-scan studies showing that in depressed people the right brain hemisphere is more active than in non-depressed people. For the person who gets stuck in his or her right brain, little things take on huge emotional significance. Also, because the right brain has no time sense, the person feels that whatever is happening now will probably go on forever. This part of the brain lacks planning and feels easily defeated because it focuses on old patterns rather than ideas for the future.

The right brain is emotional; it is the part of the brain used by artists and creative people This part of the mind quickly sizes up other people, sees patterns and connections, and knows the value of feelings. But if it is not tempered by the guidance of the left brain, reliance on the right brain can lead us into an emotional fogbank.

In most people, the left hemisphere is the more active part of the brain. This brain area gives us logical thought and a sense of time. It is focused on current reality, yet has an eye on the future and makes plans for it. This is the brain of the capable adult, and it takes time to develop. Babies and young children live solely in their right brain and only gradually learn how to use their rational-thinking left brain.

But why do depressed adults get trapped in their emotion-dominated right brain? It is because depression usually starts with prolonged uncontrolled stress. Under stressful conditions, the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, ideally should prompt the left-brain to begin planning what can be done. Most of the time, this takes care of the problem and lowers stress. But many depressed people have faced unmanageable stress for a long time, and their left brain efforts have not helped.

Our highest levels of cortisol occur when we feel a loss of power or have no control over events. This sensation often occurs when our closest relationships are highly negative and makes us vulnerable to depression. When our cortisol levels are very high and prolonged, our right brain becomes much more highly active than our left-brain. With an underactive left brain, we are no longer able to think in ways that are cheerful, positive, or socially outgoing. Once we sink deeply into right-brain mode, we feel spellbound by negative emotions and unable to chart our course. Without the left brain to throw us a rope from reality, we can feel pulled into a whirlpool of negativity and helplessness.

Once a person feels super-stressed, it is easy to get bogged down in the emotional right brain. That is why any kind of positive interaction with a left-brain person can be helpful. Left-brain dominant people are always thinking of ways to make things better. Because they are not trapped in their moody right brains, they can reason their way through frustrations and difficulties.

One reason why psychotherapy is helpful to depression is exactly because it is based on talking, the province of the verbal left brain. Asking a person to talk about what is bothering them automatically puts them into logical word-mode and gives them a little observational distance from their feelings. Therapy also helps because it encourages depressed people to think about their thinking. They have to step outside their right-brain experience in order to see how their negative thinking is amplifying their depressed mood.

Writing or journaling helps for the same reason. You have to use your left brain to form sentences and use logic and critical analysis to evaluate what you are saying.

Exposing a depressed person to a new environment may also help because new circumstances tend to activate the left brain. Coping with new events can dissipate old patterns that made a person feel powerless. Presenting the brain with new tasks makes it that much harder to stay stuck in the right-brain doldrums.

Humor is great for loosening up right-brain tunnel vision. We laugh when left-brain logic is activated, then suddenly tricked into silliness. This is why watching genuinely funny movies can shift our mood easily, making the future seem brighter.

If you find yourself getting trapped in a negative mood, it helps to take constructive action. Do anything that has a beginning, middle, and end, even if it is as simple as just taking a walk. Talking to upbeat, left-brain people can be a huge help, too, because their realistic thinking can help put your negative mood into perspective.

Of course, a serious depression may not respond to these simple measures, and professional help may be needed. But all of us are prey to falling into the right-brain trap when we are overly tired or depleted in some way. It is important to know what is happening in our brains at those times, so that we can master our moods by deliberately shifting our brain activity. Taking a mental step sideways into left-brain thinking can spring us out of the brain trap.

Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.

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