Defeating Depressive Thinking

Easing the burden of depression

Posted Jun 11, 2012

Defeating depressive thinking is a classic way to stop piling needless misery onto a depressed mood.  Let’s do a cook’s tour to see how to take advantage of this information.

Analogy of a Depressed Cat

A depressed cat appears lethargic. A mouse crosses its path and it doesn’t take chase. There is no visible sign that kitty catastrophizes about its condition or downs itself as a bad mouser. It doesn’t see a dark future. Instead, it lives from moment to moment until its depression lifts.

Cats may or may not get depressed. If they do, they probably don’t think about their condition.  To a cat, nothing may be good or bad in the sense of human values.   Humans are different. You have the power to think depressively. You also have the power to purge these cognitive distortions from your thoughts.  You can address that issue anytime.

When you think depressively, you layer needless mental miseries onto to a painful mood. You absorb yourself in exaggerations and overgeneralizations.  “I’ll stay depressed forever” is a way of saying “I can do nothing to change.” Is that a fair prediction? Might this interpretation change with new information?

Accept depressive thinking as a usual factor in depression, and you may be less inclined to take it personally. Instead, learn to undercut the distortions in this thinking. You are likely to shorten the intensity and duration of your depression. (When practiced with reasonable consistency, correcting negative cognitions creates new neural connections that buffer you against future depressions.)

Do Provocative Events Matter?

“ .  . . .for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2)

An ongoing depression may have more to do with your thinking than with your circumstances. However, some evocative events can hit hard.

It’s challenging to be stoic after a tornado destroys your home. Most reasonable people would feel stressed.  The love of your life unexpectedly betrays you.  It would seem odd if you didn’t feel badly. However, if you lament that you’ll never find another “love,” you are looking into a clouded crystal ball.

When you are depressed, you are more likely to think crookedly.  You’re not at fault for this human tendency to create, explain, or lament depression in realty distorting ways. You also have the ability to override this thinking. If depressed and reading this blog, you probably already have an interest in getting beyond this thinking.

You can think clearly when depressed. The degree that you do this depends on your constitution, perspective, type of depression, degree of depression, and circumstances. Here are two extreme examples. Both the American President Abraham Lincoln and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered recurrent depressions. Both showed levelheaded judgments in crisis. (Judgment, bravery, and courage may go under cover. They do not disappear when you feel depressed.)

Building Awareness

What thoughts ramble through the mind of the person in the dark mirror?

Depression has cognitive signatures. These distinctive patterns of thought fit with your depressed mood.  Thoughts like “I’ll never get over feeling this way” are a hopelessness signature.  “I’m no good,” is a worthlessness signature.  Similar signatures cut across many different forms of depression.

Let’s assume that you feel depressed. Negative thoughts weigh on your mind. You believe that you are to blame for everything bad that has ever happened to you. You believe that you can’t cope. You feel too drained to move. You believe that you’ll never escape depression.  In this state of mind, believing is misleading.

You have the flu, feel sick, and think you are going to die. Your negative thoughts reflect how you feel while you have this illness. You never seriously thought you’d die. You recover a few days later. This thinking is gone.

Depression long outlasts the duration of the flu. Nevertheless, knowing that depression is temporary contradicts a belief that depression goes on forever.

It pays to log depressing thoughts.  When you know what you are up against, you can deal with this thinking.  Should depression surface again, you can use this information as an early warning signal to nip depressive thinking in the bud.

Taking Action

“The best way out is always through.” (Robert Frost, A Servant to Servants)

You think you have no exit from feeling depressed. You can flip this view around by refusing to accept that premise. You can pretend that it is possible to take a first step in the direction of an exit from depression. Then, you translate this idea into reality.

Some beliefs are blatant fictions. “I’m helpless to help myself” is an example of such a fiction. This fiction can be absorbing and disturbing. It is also vulnerable to corrective actions.

Here are five corrective steps to flip from a depressive thinking perspective to one characterized by measured judgments and enlightened self-awareness:

1. Depressive thinking leads to self-fulfilling prophesies.  If you think that you are helpless to take corrective steps, you’ll live by what you predict.

2. Depressive thinking is discretionary. You have a choice to challenge and defuse cognitive signatures of depression.

3. Faulty negative thoughts can trigger and explain your mood, and your mood gives them credibility. Thus, depressive thinking is often bidirectional. By correcting depressive thinking, you disrupt a bidirectional cycle.

4. You can’t change what has happened, but you can shape what can happen. You can take steps—even tiny steps will do—to break a depressive thinking cycle.

5. By acting as if you could cope, you may find yourself coping.

If you awaken one day in a better mood, and without depressive thinking, what does this say about the meaning of this thinking?

You can find many scientifically grounded ways to overcome depression. It’s important that you take steps that hold the most promise for you.

I lay out multiple ways to recognize and defeat depression in The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression (Second Edition)

For information on a proactive psychological ways to combat depression, tune into my free 1 hour 38 min podcast on combatting depression:  CBT Depression Workshop 

 © Dr. Bill Knaus