Thinking errors, also called cognitive biases or cognitive distortions, are irrational patterns of thinking that can both cause depression, and be caused by depression: the more depressed you feel, the more you are bugged by thinking errors, and the more they bug you, the more depressed you feel.
To break this vicious circle, you need to identify your thinking errors and successfully challenge them. You may need help with this, so maybe ask a trusted friend or relative to read this article and discuss it with you.
Seven common thinking errors in depression are:
1. Arbitrary inference: drawing a conclusion in the absence of supporting evidence. For example,
The whole world hates me.
Questions to challenge arbitrary inference:
2. Over-generalization: drawing a conclusion on the basis of very limited evidence. For example,
My sister did not come to visit me. The whole world hates me.
Questions to challenge over-generalization:
3. Magnification and minimization: over- or under-estimating the importance or significance of an event. For example,
Now that my cat is dead, I’ll never have anything to look forward to.
Questions to challenge magnification and minimization:
4. Selective abstraction: focusing on a single negative event or condition to the exclusion of other, more positive ones. For example,
The nurse hates me. She gave me an annoyed look three days ago. (But never mind that she spent an hour with me this morning.)
Questions to challenge selective abstraction:
5. Dichotomous thinking: ‘all or nothing’ thinking. For example,
If he doesn’t come to see me today, then he doesn’t love me.
Questions to challenge dichotomous thinking:
6. Personalization: relating independent events to oneself. For example,
The nurse went on holiday because she was fed up with me.
Questions to challenge personalization:
7. Catastrophic thinking: exaggerating the consequences of an event or situation. For example,
The pain in my knee is getting worse. When I’m reduced to a wheelchair, I won’t be able to go to work and pay the mortgage. So I’ll end up losing my house and dying in the street.
Questions to challenge catastrophic thinking:
While it is true that people who are low in mood can suffer from grave thinking errors, the scientific literature suggests that those with only mild to moderate depression can also have more accurate judgement about the outcome of so-called contingent events (events which may or may not occur), and a more realistic perception of their role, abilities, and limitations.
This so-called ‘depressive realism’ may enable people who are low in mood to cast off the Polyannish optimism and rose-tinted spectacles that shield us from reality, to see life more accurately, and to judge it accordingly.
If so, the concept of depression may—at least in some cases—be turned on its head and positively redefined as something like ‘the healthy suspicion that modern life has no meaning and that modern society is absurd and alienating’.
For many health experts, this is the sort of irreligion that calls for anathema. Yet the question of the meaning of life is the most important that a person can ask, and the realization that life might or should be lived differently, and the difficult challenges that this poses, are bound to provoke a depressive reaction, a harsh winter that opens out onto a beautiful spring.
Neel Burton is author of Growing from Depression, The Meaning of Madness, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.