Book Review: The Upward Spiral

Book Review: The Upward Spiral – A Must-Read

We all have days when we’re in a bad mood. Sometimes, no matter what we do our mood only gets worse. We feel like just giving up and writing the day off as a loss. But we have things to do, so we carry on.

Things keep getting worse, and we find ourselves in a downward spiral. These downward spirals can sometimes lead to depression. You get stuck in a rut, and your brain actually makes it worse.

The Upward Spiral is all about escaping from this downward spiral. It will help you overcome your depression and get your life back on track.

The author, Alex Korb, is a neuroscientist with a PhD from UCLA. In The Upward Spiral he  clearly explains complex brain functions and the role they play in depression.

He uses easy-to-understand analogies and personal stories to help get his point across. And his sense of humour makes the book engaging as well as informative.

By the way, don’t be put off by the reference to “neuroscience” in the subtitle of the book: “Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time”.

It’s not highly technical, or “sciencey”. Rather, it’s squarely aimed at the layperson .

This book helped me a great deal with my own recovery from depression. I really wanted to share it with you. So, without further ado . . .

A Downward Spiral

According to Korb, “the big problem with the downward spiral of depression is it doesn’t just get you down, it keeps you down.”

Korb examines the research to explain how the brain of a depressed person works . He acknowledges that it’s not fully understood what depression actually is. However, it’s known that it’s related to neurotransmitters, and to certain brain areas.

The two main areas involved in depression are the  prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for thinking. The limbic system is responsible for emotions. The neurotransmitters involved are serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.

Korb makes all of this easy to understand.

He explains how bad habits, worry, anxiety and negative thoughts can keep you trapped in a downward spiral. The brain of a depression sufferer is biased toward negativity. This brings negative and self-critical thoughts to the surface much more readily.

To control bad habits we have to put our prefrontal cortex to use. To stop a bad habit, we make use of our prefrontal cortex and the neurotransmitter serotonin. The prefrontal cortex is used for thinking through what we’re doing. Serotonin is used for inhibiting impulses.

But depression inhibits serotonin production, which makes stopping bad habits more difficult.

An important point the author makes is that there’s nothing wrong with a depressed person’s brain: “your brain’s not damaged goods – we all have the same neural circuits, the same brain structure.” The structure may be the same, but the connections are different. Everyone is  wired differently.

According to the author, depression “is primarily a result of poor communication between the thinking prefrontal cortex and the emotional limbic system.” These two systems communicate so we can function normally. Sometimes they don’t act as they should, which can lead to depression.

After explaining a downward spiral, he gives advice on how to reverse depression. In other words, how to create an “upward spiral”.

An Upward Spiral

Korb advises taking small steps. Regardless how insignificant it seems, any change can have a big effect.

For example, when you are feeling indecisive. Making small, even trivial decisions can help you feel productive. And it’s a positive step towards reversing depression.

Korb covers the following topics:

  • physical exercise
  • setting goals and making decisions
  • getting enough quality sleep
  • developing positive habits
  • using biofeedback – simple activities that dramatically affect brain activity and improve your mood
  • activating a gratitude circuit
  • social interaction
  • medication and therapy

The advice he gives is straightforward and easy to follow. But what struck me most was the way he emphased gratitude. Apparently, creating a “gratitude circuit” has a very positive effect on your brain.

It helps decrease depression symptoms by boosting serotonin. It also improves quality of sleep and physical health. Finally, gratitude is important for producing dopamine. This neurotransmitter that enhances enjoyment.

So, activating a “gratitude circuit” can really help to foster positive emotions.

Closing Thoughts

I really enjoyed this book. I got so much from it. First, because the science is so clearly explained. Second, it gives you plenty of encouragement.

For example, in the “Trapped with anxiety and Worry” chapter, he encourages you to stay in the present: “Focusing on the present helps reduce anxiety and worry, because it decreases emotional, self-focused processing in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.”

Also, as previously mentioned, he makes the point that there’s nothing wrong with your brain.

These are just two examples of his many words of encouragement. They really inspired me, so I started incorporating his ideas into my daily life.

I highly recommend this book. It helped me a lot, and I hope it does the same for you. Go get yourself a copy . . .

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