Depression: breaking the vicious cycle

The positive feedback loop of depression

One problem with overcoming depression, whether it’s a longstanding one or just an episode of the blues, is that depression reinforces itself in a positive feedback loop. Depression causes inaction and lack of motivation, and these in turn reinforce the depression. You’re stuck.

For instance, it’s a well-replicated finding that exercise causes better mood and can be effective in depression. Yet depressed people generally do not want to exercise, because they’re in the grips of that positive feedback loop of demotivating depression.

Stand, don’t sit

So, how does one break that loop and take action that will help alleviate depression? Well, for one thing, small steps can matter. If you don’t feel up to exercising or getting moving, you can resolve to stand for long periods of time, hours, say. Sedentary behavior, which mainly comprises sitting, is “associated with significantly elevated risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, whereas even light to moderate activity was associated with substantially lower risk.” Diabetes and obesity feature elevated levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, and in fact this holds true of depression, so there is a relationship. Standing can be looked at as a form of exercise, and one actually burns about 50% more calories while standing than while sitting. And just anecdotally, my own experience is that standing causes a significant mood elevation as well as a higher energy level.

Standing can also be put into action at work. If at home and not working, one can stand while reading a book, or stand in front of the computer using a standing desk. Or perhaps one can imitate the practice of certain Catholic priests, that of peripatetic reading. In any case, standing is easily enough done that there’s no excuse for sitting around, barring exceptional circumstances.

confidence and action

If Rumsfeld can handle it, I think I can handle it.

Sleep deprivation for depression

Another way to jump start your way out of the feedback loop of depression is sleep deprivation, or as it’s sometimes known in its kinder and gentler version, wake therapy. Sleep deprivation therapy for depression, despite it sounding counter-intuitive, is a longstanding and well-replicated finding in psychiatry. What’s more, it works rapidly and also for the majority of depressed people who do it. By rapidly I mean almost instantaneously: usually the depressed person has greatly decreased symptoms immediately upon awakening. The symptoms often return upon getting more sleep, but despite that, improvement in symptoms often lasts for weeks after only one bout of total or partial sleep deprivation. Scientists are unsure about the mechanism of improvement, but one idea is that it increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

A practical method of sleep deprivation

Back when sleep deprivation as a treatment for depression got going, so-called total sleep deprivation was the rule. This is exactly what it sounds like: no sleep at all for one night. Later, it was found that partial sleep deprivation was almost or entirely as effective as total, especially when the deprived sleep is in the second half of the night. In partial sleep deprivation, one sets the alarm for four hours after one hits the sack, so that for example one will arise at 2:00 A.M. Then one does not sleep again until the following night. Advancing the sleep phase, that is, going to bed later each night, results in more lasting improvement.

It probably goes without saying, but if one does this, coffee will be quite useful. In any case, coffee is associated with less depression anyway, so it does double duty there.

Furthermore, bright light therapy added to sleep deprivation provides additional effectiveness. (And on its own, light therapy is as effective as antidepressant drugs.)


Exercise is an effective tool against depression, but exercise requires motivation, which is often lacking in depression. Some people need the small steps to get going in the fight against their depression. Standing, wake therapy, light therapy, and caffeine can all be useful, and the motivation required is small.


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How To Cure Depression - Thumotic says January 6, 2015

[…] Rogue Health and Fitness: Breaking The Depression Feedback Loop […]

Allana Williams says August 31, 2018

Let’s workout and be free from depression! Great post!

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