Hot-air Baloon

Ch-8: Rise Above Anxiety, Anger, and Depression

Underarousal Emotions Causes and Solutions for Habitual Depression, Apathy

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
Send Feedback/Questions to:
You Can Choose To Be Happy:
Site dedicated to enhancing human happiness, self-development, and success
SITE MAP: All free Self-help resources includes online book, You Can Choose To Be Happy, and SHAQ

Photo of Dr Tom and Sherry Stevens
search index brief sitemap advanced site search
search engine by freefind
Chapter 8, Part 5c, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
Go to book Contents Go to chapter contents  Go to Strategy 5: GOALS  beginning  Return to Happy Homepage

How to overcome depression, sadness, apathy, and other underarousal emotions

Section Contents: 

 OVERCOME UNDERAROUSAL EMOTIONS--depression, apathy, loneliness, etc

Table of Major Causes and Solutions for Habitual Depression 

 Factors that predispose someone toward depression

  To overcome depression increase emotional arousal by increasing challenge:
(1) Raise goal and expectation LEVELS
(2) Become MORE ATTACHED to one goal or increase commitment
(3) Focus on OUTCOME goals
(4) Focus on STATIC, one-shot goals
(5) Focus on COMPLEX, LARGE-STEP goals
SUMMARY--Mental Control Strategy 4:

                         DEPRESSION, GRIEF, SADNESS, AND APATHY:
                                 Choose more challenging goals to increase interest and excellence

We have looked at the overarousal emotions such as anxiety, now let's consider the underarousal emotions such as apathy, boredom, depression, and loneliness. All of these underarousal emotions have in common that our emotional arousal, energy, and motivation are too low. You may feel listless, uninterested, unfocused, helpless, or hopeless. Your feeling will be intensified to the degree you believe that your life will continue in this state. (Recall that understimulation and underchallenge lower emotional arousal below the zone of harmonious functioning.)

Depression caused by "GOAL-LESSNESS" that results from a LOSS. A client's fiance, Barry, was killed in an automobile accident. Annette experienced a grief reaction in which she felt very depressed. Of course, she also felt varying degrees of anxiety, anger, and guilt at other times, but her most frequent feeling was depression.

It is interesting that her emotions changed as her focus on different expectations and goals changed. She had developed a mental image of what her married life would be like. She had pictured a marriage that would satisfy her values related to intimacy, romance, children, and having someone always there for her. When she focused on any of these expectations, she felt very depressed. These goals and expectations would never be fulfilled with Barry. In addition, she had envisioned her marriage fulfilling other goals (less related to Barry)--such as having a nice house, travel, and financial security.

Barry's death, and the sudden end of her dream caused her to temporarily give up on meeting all of these goals and expectations; it was as if she suddenly had no goals or expectations at all! She was in a goal-less state that is creates underchallenge and therefore underarousal--depression.

As long Annette did not substitute new, realistic, acceptable goals and expectations, she would remain in a depressed state--at least in that area of her life. First, I helped her realize that the happiness she had found with Barry could possibly be realized with someone else. After all, she was as responsible for her happiness in the relationship as Barry had been. Second, I helped her build a new image of how she could be happy alone. We focused on the specific values and goals that were not being satisfied such as intimacy, romance, companionship, emotional support, financial security, and having a nice home environment. Currently, her levels of satisfaction were very low for all these values, but she made new goals and plans for increasing their satisfaction to acceptable levels. Her new realistic, challenging goals gave her a renewed feeling of control over her life and emotions--and a return to her more optimistic, happy self.

What can we learn from Annette's experience? Depression (sadness) can be triggered by a loss, such as loss of a job or loved on. It can be triggered by failure to meet important goals. In any case, we feel a sense of loss and helplessness; because we aren't satisfying important values. We feel we have lost control of our emotions.

When many people feel down, they give up, withdraw from people and activities, and constrict their goals and interests. They believe that--because their old goals and expectations appear bleak--they can't be happy or successful in that life area. They create a goal-less state in which their old goals are suspended, and they have yet to create new, realistic, acceptable goals. That goal-less state is the cause of the underarousal emotion, depression (very low goals have a similar effect).

The existentialists, such as Frankl, point out that goal-lessness creates a vacuum in our lives that we perceive as "meaninglessness." They recognize that "meaninglessness" is a major cause of depression.

When we feel underarousal emotions, we need to examine both (1) the original goals and expectations that are now viewed as unattainable and (2) create new (or modified) goals and expectations that are realistic, optimally challenging, and acceptable ways to meet important underlying values. We can find new goals, new interests, or new ways of meeting our goals that can fill our time and satisfy our underlying values. That is a primary therapeutic method to convert the depression from grief, loss, or "failure" to happiness.

Return to beginning

Other causes of goal-lessness. Annette had experienced a loss that was completely outside her control--her fiance' had been killed in an automobile accident unrelated to her actions. Depression such as hers is usually called depression due to grief or loss. What if you are feeling down, and you do not know what the cause of your depression is? What if your depression is caused by a failure? What if you think there is something very wrong with you (low self-esteem, shy, immoral, or dumb)? These conditions (and many more) can also help cause depression. How?

Depression caused by failure, avoidance behavior, or withdrawal. What if your relationship ends partly because your partner was not happy with you? What if your boss didn't feel you were good at your job? What if you didn't get admitted to graduate school or couldn't get the job you wanted? What if your business failed?

If you fail or if you feel overwhelmed by a situation and give-up, then you end up in the same type of goal-less vacuum Annette experienced. The only difference is the original cause. In Annette's case, the cause--a car wreak--was out of her control. In this case, you may perceive part of the cause as being your own inadequacies (and that perception may be accurate).

So, you have an additional factor causing your depression--your own real or perceived inadequacies. In either case you need to establish new goals and expectations. If you just had bad luck, then perhaps just trying again will work. If you need to work on improving some knowledge, skill, or other resource to be more successful, then set your goals on getting the needed improvements. Otherwise, give up the original goal and find a new, more realistic one.

Return to beginning


Table of Major Causes and Solutions for Habitual Depression

Do you feel depressed, sad, low motivation, low energy, tired, apathetic, or helpless? Are you not looking forward to anything?

Being below the zone
causes low performance, low learning, and low emotional arousal. 

=>To learn more about the basic causes of depression, learn the Harmonious Functioning Model in Chapter 7


1. UNDERSTIMULATING SITUATIONS--often an overly constricted situation caused by withdrawing from an overwhelming one. Too simple or routine. (To understand why this is so important--see chapter 7)

2. LOW GOALS and EXPECTATIONS--goallessness. A vacuum--often caused by giving up other goals--or even by accomplishing other goals. (See goallessness above)

3. POORLY MATCHED ABILITIES--Including the following:  (See chapter 7 to understand why these are important)

 >TOO LOW relevant knowledge, skills, or other resources (perceived as necessary to accomplish original goals ). Often fear creating new goals from fear of failing at those too because of low abilities.

 >TOO HIGH abilities for resultant goalless state. All parts of ourselves need to be used and functioning harmoniously to create optimal arousal and happiness. Disuse causes underarousal, atrophy, and eventual death of part of ourselves (physical organ systems as well as psychological systems).

  • Anxiety, feeling overwhelmed + Lack ability to deal with situation See this chapter 8  plus s
  • Lack of involvement, tiredness, depression, etc. (Depression causes you to feel tired and makes normally appealing incentives seem meaningless or not worth the effort--you must overcome this feeling to reduce depression. ) See  (See goallessness above) 
  • Conflict or Attention to higher priority concerns (See this chapter section on Conflict and Harmony).

BACKGROUND CAUSES (predisposing one to depression) INCLUDE:

1. TOO HIGH GOALS & EXPECTATIONS--for one's resources & abilities (See goals and expectations section in this chapter)

2. LOSS--Such as death, abandonment, etc. (See values in chapter 9).

3. NEGATIVE SELF VIEWS. Lack of general self-worth or self-confidence (See chapter 5 on Self-Esteem).

4. NEGATIVE WORLD VIEWS or views of other people. These can cause us to exaggerate the difficulties involved in meeting our goals (See world view chapter 4).

5EXTERNAL CONTROL. Giving control to others undermines control of emotions and lives; shoulds, rule-bound, codependent, etc. (See chapter 6 on Internal-External Control).

6. NEGATIVE COGNITIVE STYLES--negative bias, overgeneralization, catastrophizing, "always--never" or "black-white" thinking in extremes (Appendix D).

7. LOW ASSERTIVENESS, INTERPERSONAL SKILLS (See internal control chapter 6).

8. SELF-DEPRIVATION, self-denial (See section in this chapter).

9. LOW SELF-MANAGEMENT SKILLS--Poor abilities for self-organization, decision-making, time management, etc. ( See self-management chapter 9).

10. LOW EMOTIONAL COPING SKILLS (See this chapter and much of book).

11. LIFE AREA or TASK-RELATED ABILITIES too low--lack knowledge, skills, or resources.
                     (See section on self-confidence and assessing life skills in chapter 5).



Factors that predispose someone toward depression. Many of us struggle for many years to overcome depression. At one end of the spectrum of prolonged depression are people whose depression is mild--they just consider themselves "not very happy." At the other end are people who are often severely depressed and frequently consider suicide. Has this been a problem for you or someone you care about? What are some of the factors that predispose someone to feel depressed over a long period of time?

First, remember that these factors work by causing the person to frequently be in a state of underchallenge and underarousal. These factors keep them from harmonious functioning. Important values and parts of themselves are not being engaged at a challenging, fun level or they are not being satisfied at all. The person may often be in a goal-less, "meaningless" mental state. These factors are dealt in other chapters, but this is the only place that they are summarized as a whole. I will briefly discuss them and their solutions. Study the depression causes table.

1. Low internal control, coping skills, or assertiveness. People who are habitually depressed often lack internal control and assertiveness. Often assertion training can help them not only become more successful with others, but can help them get out of their depression (see internal control chapter). People who are habitually depressed also often lack self-direction, initiative, or self-management skills (see chapter self-management chapter). Emotional coping skills--such as those taught in this chapter and book--is another area frequently lacking in people who are habitually depressed.

2. Negative world views and self views often cause depression. Depression may not be so much that you are really so inadequate or have too high expectations. It may be caused by how you view yourself or the world. If you view yourself as bad or stupid no matter what you do, then you will feel depression. If you view the world (or other people) as so negative, hostile, or different from you, that you "don't have a chance" to succeed, then you will feel depressed. If these are problems, see the chapters of world view and self-esteem.

3.Too much self-denial can cause depression. A woman I saw was a cardiac nurse. She knew the signs of a heart attack. She started getting those signs--such as excruciating chest pains--three days before her daughter's wedding. Yet she did not tell anyone or see a doctor; because she knew it was so bad, he would hospitalize her. She feared it would disrupt her daughter's wedding. While she was dancing at the reception, her chest pains were so bad, she thought she would probably die right there. That is self-denial--putting her own life at risk to make sure her daughter's wedding was undisturbed. What would you do in a similar circumstance?

When we make choices that deny important parts of ourselves--important biological needs, values, or goals--it can cause those parts to feel depressed and lower our overall motivation and happiness (even when other parts may feel happy). People may habitually choose self-denial when they put all their energy into meeting long-term goals such as working exceptionally long hours to get a college degree or obtain career success.

Another cause of habitual self-denial is a belief system that puts too high a value on sacrificing ones own values and happiness for others. Many parents teach their children that their children's needs are not important or teach them that they "don't deserve" to be happy. These children may grow up believing a dark cloud follows them; they are so "bad" or incompetent that they don't deserve anything good. Therefore, they automatically feel guilty whenever they think about something fun for themselves--and often choose to not pursue such "selfish" goals. The result is a life of self-deprivation and depression.

What if you are one of these people? What do you do about it? The solution is to confront the original belief systems that cause the self-denial and strengthen belief systems (such as the Higher Self) that support personal happiness (see "codependence" section of internal control chapter). Focus on areas of greatest deprivation (sex? fun? play? artistic interests? spending money on yourself? taking time to be alone? etc.) Then make practical goals and plans for leading a more personally rewarding life. Schedule these new activities into your daily, and weekly, and monthly plans.

Return to beginning

4. Underlying fears and habitual avoidance behavior. A person is lonely because she avoids her fear of rejection. An "underemployed" worker feels trapped because he avoids the anxiety of looking for a job. A person stays in a controlling, restrictive relationship because she avoids dealing with her fear of being alone or taking care of herself.

A major cause of depression is avoidance of situations or avoidance of tasks that are too challenging and anxiety producing. Perhaps we have "good reasons" for avoidance. Perhaps we have experienced pain from those situations. The underlying factors causing the depression are (1)the inability to cope with the overchallenging situation, (2) the resultant anxiety, and (3) our choice to avoid the situation.

We may blame the other person for our depression, when in fact our emotions are primarily our own responsibility. We choose to remain depressed because it seems safer than replacing or converting the current situation that is depressing. If you are depressed because you are not facing overwhelming situations, then use the methods described earlier for dealing with overarousal situations.  

=>To deal with underlying fears FIRST, IDENTIFY THEM (See Chapter 2 on the Self-Exploration Process),   SECOND, develop an acceptable PLAN of how to deal with the worst possible outcome AND develop a new way of thinking about it (See Chapter 4 on dealing with worst fears).

5. Alternating between very high and very low goals. Some people tend to alternate between high arousal and depression--an extreme is manic-depressive episodes. These people may experience success (or other positive input) that causes them to get overly optimistic or idealistic. Then they set unrealistically high goals and expectations. When they try to accomplish these lofty goals, they feel overwhelmed by the size of the task.

To avoid the anxiety, they may begin avoiding responsibilities or quit. Completely giving up their sky-high goals immediately lowers their goals too much. They go from extremely high goals to no goals. Becoming "goal-less" shuts down their arousal. The result is apathy and depression. Their depression ends when they find new lofty goals; and the cycle from exhilaration to depression starts all over again. To prevent this cycle, first set realistic, moderately difficult goals. Then revise goals (using the LAPDS principles) to keep yourself motivated when the going gets tough.

Return to beginning

6. We can feel depressed after accomplishing goals. People are often puzzled why they feel depressed after they accomplish their goals. If they have no new goals to replace the accomplished goals, they may be in a "goal-less" state similar to when people have "given up." Finding new optimally challenging goals adds "meaning" to life and re-sparks enthusiasm.

Challenging and involving activities give mental and physical energy. Whatever the original cause of depression, while we are in a state of depression, we are actually underchallenged and understimulated. Therefore, if we want to feel more aroused, more energetic, more motivated, and happier, then we can do so by increasing the complexity and challenge in the immediate situation we are facing right now.
Even if we don't feel like doing something initially, it is very likely that any episode that engages a higher level of mental and physical involvement will help reduce our depression. That is why activities like sports, dancing, biking, crossword puzzles, TV, music, talking with friends, or solving a complex problem can have an immediate positive effect upon depression.

These activities may only have temporary effects if they do not cope with the underlying causes of the depression. However, if you are having problems with too much depression, unhappiness, boredom, or "tiredness," try building these energy-producing activities into your schedule. Filling your life with these positive stimulating activities can give you energy for coping with the bigger problems and (when integrated into your lifestyle) can have powerful, permanent effects on your happiness as well.

Return to beginning

SUMMARY-- increase emotional arousal by increasing challenge and complexity.

To increase emotional arousal, we must do the opposite of what we would do if we want to decrease our arousal. We focus on goals that are more challenging, complex, difficult, and uncertain. Learn and use the following five goal-change methods to increase emotional arousal--the opposite ends of the LAPDS dimensions.
(If you started with this section, go back and review the LAPDS Model and also go back and review the Harmonious Functioning Model in Chapter 7 and how it explains the root causes of depression.)

(1) Raise goal and expectation LEVELS. This is a simple, but powerful way to increase challenge and arousal. For example, if you are bored with your job, adopt goals for yourself that add to the job and make it more challenging. If you are not challenged by your boss or the people you are working with, compare yourself to a different reference group and set higher standards. You can exceed the expectations of your boss or co-workers, and become self-directed and more creative. Raising your goals not only allows you to give more to the world, but to feel happier yourself. Consider raising the quality of what you are doing as well as the quantity.

Another approach is to consider looking at your job from a whole different perspective. What is missing that could make your unit more effective meeting the needs of others? What could you invent, initiate, or propose that would make a difference in the lives of those you serve? Find the answer to that question and you may create a whole new--more exciting--project for yourself.

(2) Become MORE ATTACHED to one goal or plan. If you choose to keep a goal or activity, but find yourself understimulated by it, increase your caring about it. Learn more about it, get better acquainted with it, learn how it might make your life or the world better. Focus on its positives. If there are negatives that are turning you off, learn to understand and accept them better.

What could you do to make the activity more enjoyable or meaningful? Put more energy into the quality of your work and view it as a work of art that will be beautiful to you.

(3) Focus on OUTCOME goals. When you are feeling overconfident, bored, or apathetic, focus on the potential outcomes. If you want to increase arousal during some activity, then focus on important values which can be affected by success or failure of that activity.

For example, if you are having trouble getting something done due to lack of interest or time conflicts, focus on positive and negative consequences relating to important values. Focusing on the difficulties or uncertainties of getting what we want increases our arousal. Remind yourself what will happen if you perform at an adequate level and what will happen if you do not. What are the internal and external consequences? What are the career, financial, or interpersonal consequences? How will it affect other people's lives? What will you think of yourself later if you did or did not do your best?

Return to beginning

(4) Focus on STATIC, "one-shot" goals. What if you have started to lose sight of your long -term goals or your dynamic, growth-oriented goals? Challenging short-term, static goals can renew your interest. You might make a game of what you are doing to stimulate your interest. Find a way to measure progress--"keep score." Introduce some reference to compare your progress to.

You may want to introduce friendly competition into an otherwise "boring" activity to make it more challenging. Then "winning" can be a static goal which adds stimulation to the activity. Or, you may want to establish a challenging yardstick to beat--such as your own past performance. We can also make a contract with ourselves that we will get some reinforcement contingent upon our actions. That is another way to raise the stakes and our arousal by creating a static goal (to get the reward).

(5) Focus on COMPLEX, LARGE-STEP goals. If you have become bogged down in too much detail (which you have overlearned), then you may get bored. Try focusing on larger or more complex tasks. Focus more on the "big picture." See if that larger perspective suggests new approaches or new tasks.

Converting simple tasks into more complex, interesting ones. One way to make a task more complex is to pay more attention to details and to create many small tasks from a task that someone else might consider a simple task. When most of us look at a bug, we just glance at it and lose interest. "A bug is just a bug." However a "bug biologist" I know is fascinated with bugs. He sees much more in bugs than you or I. He loves bugs. He could study bugs for hours and never get bugged. An activity that drives a person bugs can become fascinating when that person learns to look at its complexity and find the beauty in it.

Return to beginning

More concentration, attention to details, and personal involvement can overcome boredom. In our daily lives and our work, many of us find that significant amounts of our time are spent in a state of boredom or understimulation. We may rarely feel truly challenged and excited about our work. In his book, Skillful Means--Patterns for Success, Tarthang Tulku (1991) summarizes the problem:

...we rarely put our hearts and minds fully into our work;
in fact, working just enough to get by has become the norm.
Most people do not expect to like their work, much less to do it well,
for work is commonly considered as nothing more
than a means to an end...
This kind of self-centered motivation makes it difficult to express and
develop our human potential through our work.
(p. xix)

Tulku further believes that a process of (1) developing inner clarity, (2) concentrating intensely, and (3) considering the effects of our actions from a broad perspective will greatly increase our interest and performance--even when we are doing very simple tasks. Remember, a task is only a task--it is never "boring" in itself. "Bored" describes our reaction to the task. By changing our reaction to the task we can eliminate our "boredom." Tulku gives an exercise in "lighthearted concentration" that provides some instruction for us.

You can develop this concentration at work by doing one task at a time,
 devoting all of your attention to what you are doing,
being aware of each detail involved.

PRACTICE: Examine an area of boredom or depression. (1) Identify an underarousal problem area. (2) Ask yourself how much your underarousal is due to avoiding stressful situations and how much is due to being in understimulating situations. Explore your emotions to find underlying fears. (3) Use the methods in this chapter--especially in the last section--to deal with this situation.

SUMMARY--Mental Control Strategy 4:

Harmonious functioning (and happiness) require
an optimally challenging match between tasks and abilities.
Adjusting goals and expectations
adjusts the level of challenge like a thermostat.
If you want to lower arousal--when too anxious, angry, afraid, or confused,
choose goals that are
lower, have alternatives, process-oriented, dynamic, and simpler (LAPDS).
If you want to raise arousal--when too bored, depressed, or apathetic,
choose goals that are 
higher, involving, outcome-oriented, static, and complex.
Remember to make multiple goals and expectations to cover all outcomes--
Go for the Gold, but be prepared for the worst!
Return to beginning
Go to next section of Chapter 8

The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

Email feedback to Dr. Stevens I welcome your comments about my web site or any of its contents.           

Self-Help and other resources on this website (and site map)

Web site created and maintained by: Tom G. Stevens PhD Psychologist-Faculty Emeritus,
California State University, Long Beach Counseling and Psychological Services.
URL of this web site:

Return to Dr. Stevens' Home Page

Copyright 2021 Tom G. Stevens PhD