It has been estimated that we have anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 thoughts a day. If your cast of mind is predominantly negative, imagine how many negative thoughts you are generating daily—thousands upon thousands. That is precisely the case with depression.
One of the features of depression is pessimistic thinking. The negative thinking is actually the depression speaking. It's what depression sounds like. Depression in fact manifests in negative thinking before it creates negative affect.
Most depressed people are not aware that the despair and hopelessness they feel are flowing from their negative thoughts. Thoughts are mistakenly seen as privileged, occupying a rarefied territory, immune to being affected by mood and feelings, and therefore representing some immutable truth.
Compounding the matter is that negative thinking slips into the brain under the radar of conscious awareness and becomes one of the strongest of habit patterns. People generate negative thoughts so automatically they are unaware that it is happening, that it is actually a choice they are making.
One of the most powerful actions you can take in combating depression is to understand how critical the quality of your thinking is to maintaining and even intensifying your depression—and that the quickest way to change how you feel is to change how you think. Often enough you can't control how you feel, but you can always control how you think. There's an active choice you can take—if you are aware that changing your thinking is important.
It's not an accident that cognitive therapy is one of the most researched and practiced of depression treatments. It is based on the fact that thought-processing errors contribute so much to depressed mood.
It is possible to take action and to change patterns of thinking on your own. There are six action strategies that bring the quickest results in breaking out of the negative thought patterns that maintain your depression.
- Know that it is possible to control the quality of your thinking. That contributes more to how you feel than any other factor. It is a widespread but false belief that you have to change your feelings in order to change how you think; it is actually the other way around.
- Keep track of just how many negative thoughts you are actually having. There are several ways to do this, but no matter which way you choose, you need two to three days to assess the amount and degree of negative thinking.
You can keep a thought journal for several days in which, at the end of each day, you jot down as many instances of negative thinking as you can remember. "I thought I was too fat." "I hate my boss." "I hate traffic jams." Include instances in which you call yourself a name such as "idiot," or think of yourself (or someone else) as worthless.
Note any kind of pessimistic thinking, any focusing on problems rather than on solutions. Record thinking in which you feel yourself to be a victim, even if you have been genuinely victimized.
Jot down thoughts of feeling helpless or hopeless. Be especially aware of making sweeping generalizations from one specific bad event so that your whole future appears to be terrible. "I got fired from this job; I'll never have a good job again." "This relationship broke up; I'll never find a partner." Listen for words that are categorical and extreme—always, never. Black-and-white thinking is another sign—it's usually too extreme.
Alternatively to keeping a journal, carry with you a wad of index cards or a palm computer and note negative thoughts as they occur. Although describing the negative thoughts is more helpful, it is not essential; you can simply tally them.
Develop a partnership strategy. Ask a loved one or a trusted colleague to point out to you your instances of negative thinking, and then record them.
- After you get a fix on the kind of negative thinking and its frequency, identify the situations that trigger such thinking. The act of writing down instances of negative thinking is an exercise in focusing that helps make you aware of the triggers. In all likelihood, certain types of events are particularly likely to set off a chain of negative thoughts. For some, it's an act of being rejected or ignored or not responded to by another person. For others it might be a negative remark about or actual setback in their work.
- Convert negative to positive thinking the next time you encounter a trigger. Just flip the switch.
For this it helps to have a visual reminder at hand. Keep in your purse or on your desk a switch plate with an actual light switch on it. Refer to it often.
Which kind of thought circuitry do you plug into—negative or positive? "I'm too fat" vs. "I've never been more fit." "This plan will never work" vs. "I have some suggestions that will help get this plan off the ground." Constantly flip the switch from down and dark to up and light.
- Utilize the partnership strategy. Tell your mate or trusted colleague that you think you're sounding too pessimistic in your thinking and that you want to be more optimistic; ask them to help you out by first cueing you when you are sounding negative and then asking you to instantly convert it to a positive statement.
- In keeping your diary of negative thinking, create a separate column for writing the corresponding positive thought. "I'm too old" vs. "I'm getting better with age." Do this for a few days to get the hang of converting negative to positive thinking.