Thinking About Depression

When I think about depression and low moods, and how to find a way out of them, I look at at three things: feelings, thoughts and actions.

As an integrative counsellor I consider both the causes of depression and the approach to getting better from a number of angles. One of those is using a model called Transactional Analysis or TA.

TA provides a framework for thinking about how you use your time. Could you use it differently to get more of what you need and feel better? This is one way of thinking about depression and what you can do to help yourself.


Transactional Analysis: Strokes

Eric Berne, the psychiatrist who created TA, used the term strokes as a shorthand for interactions between people.

Strokes are how we give and get attention. In TA, a stroke is anything that someone else does that causes you to feel.

Nice strokes are things like back rubs, smiles, praise, applause, or nods of approval. An unpleasant stroke would look more like a kick in the shin, an insult, criticism. Or “the look” that you know means you’re in trouble.

There are physical strokes – all kinds of touch – and psychological strokes, like compliments, encouragement, or a telling off.

Sometimes strokes are given freely and sometimes we have to earn them. Usually the more we give the more we receive. (This is one reason why talking about depression can help alleviate it.)

As a baby, you needed strokes to survive – without them, your spinal cord would not have developed. As an adult… you may never have thought about this before, but you spend the majority of your time working out ways of getting them.

Some strokes are more satisfying than others. If you’ve been feeling lonely, unhappy or depressed, it could be that you’ve been choosing ways of getting strokes that aren’t as satisfying as you need.

You can change that.

About Depression: How You Spend Your Time Getting Strokes

Berne looked at the ways people spend their time and broke them down into six main categories or ways of getting strokes.

At one end of the scale is the way of spending time that feels safest, but is least satisfying: withdrawal. At the opposite end is the riskiest but most rewarding way of spending time: intimacy.

The idea is that the more you are avoiding being vulnerable with others, the less satisfaction you are getting. This is because it is closeness with other people which ultimately makes us feel better.

1. Withdrawal

Withdrawal is attempting to get physical or mental strokes without interacting with other people. This could mean daydreaming, reading, watching TV, or scrolling through social media. We all need to switch off sometimes but withdrawal is not satisfying enough to keep us feeling OK for long. (If you think about depression and your experience of it, you might find you have been withdrawing more than usual.)


2. Rituals

Rituals are socially-approved ways of doing things, like saying hello, please and thank you. They are the most basic interactions between people (think of the exchange at the checkout) and the second safest way to get strokes. There isn’t much risk involved… but we still feel hurt if we say hi and don’t get a word back.

3. Pastimes

Berne described pastimes as a “series of half-ritual, simple transactions about a single topic to fill in time”. A pastime is a predictable exchange of strokes about one particular subject. It might include talking about football, the weather, or gossiping. These kinds of conversations help us get a little closer to people without feeling like we’re taking much risk because they don’t require much openness. They can help you start getting to know someone, but they’re not the most satisfying type of exchange.

4. Activity

Activity is getting stuff done. Going to work is the activity that takes up the biggest part of most people’s waking hours. And even if you get paid, doesn’t it make a huge difference when someone tells you that you did a good job? Activities are both a little less safe feeling (because we’re more open to criticism) and a little more rewarding than pastimes. Working together brings us closer together. One of the difficult things about depression is how it can sap your energy, making it difficult to do work that satisfies you. If that sounds like you, remember that something is better than nothing and start small.

5. Games

In TA Gamesis a technical term for dodgy ways of getting strokes. But the important point about Games is that it is only a Game if you don’t know you’re doing it. We use Games to get strokes when we don’t think that we’re entitled to them or don’t think we can get them in more direct ways. We all play Games, but the more you become aware of the Games you get into, the more you can choose differently.

(Berne developed the Parent-Adult-Child model, then one of his students Stephen Karpman created the Drama Triangle, and these two tools are invaluable in helping us make sense of the Games we get drawn into.)

A Game is a set of out-of-awareness transactions that happen over and over and usually end up the same way. If you find yourself caught in a dynamic that just keeps ending badly for you, it could be that you’re unwittingly playing a Game. A therapist could help you make sense of it and make a change.

6. Intimacy


True intimacy is the most intense, satisfying way of getting strokes. Unfortunately most of us don’t get as much intimacy – either physical or psychological – as we would like, because intimacy requires us to be vulnerable, and making yourself vulnerable can be pretty scary. It involves trust, courage, honesty and openness. And most of us have trouble being open and honest at least some of the time with some people. This is usually because we have experienced being dismissed, ignored, or worse. (Sometimes those experiences need to be processed with someone trustworthy so that you can rebuild your faith in humanity, and that is one way that counselling changes lives.)

So what does all this mean for thinking about depression?

If you have been suffering with depression or low moods, TA offers us a way of looking at how you’re spending your time and whether you’re getting what you need.

You can start where you are, and use this as a framework for considering how you might be able to get more of what you need.

Have you been in a state of withdrawal? You could start by looking to get involved in rituals and pastimes.

Have you been been managing those but not activities? Perhaps it would help to challenge yourself to get one thing done today, maybe with a friend or partner.

And if you’re saying hello to people, chatting about TV shows and getting your work done, but still feeling disconnected… could it be that something is stopping you from opening up enough to experience intimacy?

(Note that Games are best avoided so if you have been managing activities but not feeling great, intimacy would be your next step.)

If you’re interested in how counselling could help you think differently about depression and would like to discuss how I might be able to help, you can call me on 07428 396671, find other ways to to contact me here, or join my mailing list here.