Depression and Extrapolating From Too Little Data

One of the things I’ve noticed about dealing with depression and chronic pain is that my brain is incredibly talented at extrapolating from tiny amounts of data (“By the third trimester, there will be hundreds of babies inside you!”). When I feel really depressed, I feel like I will always be really depressed. When my pain symptoms are getting worse, I feel like they’re going to keep getting worse until I can’t handle it anymore. When they’re getting better, I often feel like they’re going to keep getting better. I realized recently what the common thread is in these cases.

I tend to extrapolate my present experience out to the future when I don’t know how to change how I’m feeling right now. If I’m depressed and I can’t snap myself out of it, I assume because I can’t change it now that it’s not going to change. If I’m experiencing pain symptoms and they’re getting worse and I can’t get them to stop getting worse, I assume they’re going to continue along the same trajectory. This is in spite of the fact that both depression and pain symptoms, by their nature, tend to fluctuate both up and down. They do this all the time in my own experience, and yet I still have trouble remembering that when things start to go bad.

Maybe it’s because I’m catastrophizing, and the worst-case scenario when depression or pain is ramping up is that it will keep ramping up, so that’s what my catastrophizing brain focuses on. Maybe it’s just that my brain is bad at statistics in general (this hypothesis is easily reinforced by the ways that I know my brain tends to extrapolate about other things, e.g. “This feels terrible, and it will always feel terrible, and I will never date again!” after my first relationship ended). Either way, I find that identifying a mental habit problem and talking about it explicitly tends to be a very useful step in changing the habit, so here is a blog post.

Problem identified: When things, like depression, or chronic pain symptoms, feel like they’re going to last forever, it’s usually just because there isn’t something you can do immediately to make them stop, and your brain is being bad at prediction again.