You have no idea how powerful your thoughts are. Thoughts – mental events produced by consciousness – can, in fact, affect matter, and I don’t mean bending spoons with a gaze. Studies have proven that thoughts alone are capable of improving vision, fitness, and strength. Think about the placebo effect, for example. It’s not the substance itself, but the belief that it works that makes you heal.
No wonder, thoughts are at the root of our emotions and behavior. Whether you’re feeling joy, despair, or calm right now, your current state of mind has originated in your thoughts and your interpretation of the reality rather than the reality itself.
Everything Is A Matter Of Perspective
It’s not the real-life events or situations, but rather, your own thoughts that have the power to trigger depression or anxiety. Events themselves are completely neutral. Think about a soccer game, the most popular sport on Earth. Real Madrid playing against FC Barcelona it’s just twenty-two sweaty guys running after a ball and fighting fiercely to score a goal. When one team scores, its supporters get ecstatic! They start cheering, singing with joy, screaming with delight. The supporters of the other team, however, show very different emotions. They will be sad, or furious, or disappointed. And if you’re not into soccer like me, you probably don’t give a f*ck.
So it’s not the game itself, but their thoughts that make them feel the way they feel. That’s the reason why, while some people can survive the hardest life experiences and catastrophes almost unaffected psychologically, other get devastated by seemingly unimportant failures.
The Spiral Of Depressive Thinking
The very first thing I noticed about my mental health issues was that I was thinking too much. My rational mind would tell me that I wasn’t really in a bad situation. After all, I had a loving and supportive family, a mortgage-free place to live, some marketable skills in demand and a healthy and fit young body… but, you know what? The worst thing about any situation is that it always can be worse. At this point, the catastrophic thinking started. If I feel this bad when nothing serious is going on, what do I do if…? Ruminating past events and worrying about the future gradually became my habit, and so did verbal self-flagellating for failures.
Sometimes, one unimportant thought that appeared out of nowhere was enough to trigger my depressed mood. And bad mood led to more depressing thoughts, as you may suspect. Eventually, I would feel completely down and begin crying over my hopelessness, or fantasize about getting rid of myself in a way that nobody notices. Tears should bring relief, but they don’t – they make me feel tired, worthless, and pathetic.
When you’re clinically depressed, positive thinking seems completely absurd and delusional. There is no point in denying the reality by telling yourself that it doesn’t hurt when it does, and belittling your problems by comparing yourself with other people whose life is tough. Indulging in positive fantasies about the future won’t work either, study says. But, it’s hard to get over a depressed mood when you’re hearing your gremlins whisper to your ear: You’ve screwed up once again. You’re hopeless. This world would be a better place without you.
How about correcting your thoughts in a way that they become more REALISTIC? Does that sound do-able?
Negative Thinking Patterns
“Every bad feeling you have is the result of your distorted negative thinking”, states David Burnes, the author of the bestselling book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Learning how to identify your negative thinking habits and challenge them is the best long-term strategy for resisting depression when it tries to come back.
- Filtering: You dwell completely upon a detail. Minor flaws prevent you from seeing the entire image. Your glass is always half-empty, so even if you perform well and only get a few mistakes, you tend to notice only the negatives.
- Disqualifying positives. When you get praised, you think “they are just being nice”, or attribute your success to luck and favorable conditions. Doing so, you don’t just ignore anything positive that happens in your life. At this point, you are able to turn positive into negative to make yourself feel miserable, which is a higher lever of self-flagellation.
- Polarized thinking: Also known as all-or-nothing thinking. Unless you did perfect in every aspect, you’re a complete failure. This is completely unrealistic because things are seldom black or white – they usually come in all shades of gray.
- Overgeneralization: If something happens to you, you automatically conclude that it will happen again, and again. And always. But even when you get rejected, it doesn’t mean that you’re unlovable and no one will ever date you. It’s just one isolated situation.
- Jumping to Conclusions: Are you, by any chance, a fortune teller? Or have the superpower of reading other’s minds? If a friend doesn’t return your call, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s angry with you. There may be a gazillion of other reasons, so the best you can do is accept the uncertainty for the time being, and maybe you’ll be given an answer later.
- Magnification and minimization: You exaggerate your own mistakes and imperfections while completely belittling your strengths and achievements. This kind of thinking almost guarantees you’ll feel hopeless and unworthy and often leads to procrastination.
- Shoulds: Should statements puts you under pressure and make you feel ashamed if for some reasons you violate those self-imposed rules or don’t meet the standards. That’s why I really hate this word.
- Emotional reasoning: You treat your emotions as if they were facts: “I feel ugly, therefore I am ugly”. That’s ridiculous. The concept of beauty is so abstract and relative across cultures that such a statement has no validity. What you feel doesn’t have to be true, and there are other points of view that may completely contradict yours.
- Labeling: It is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Personal labeling means creating a completely negative self-image based on your errors. This includes calling yourself names when you fail to meet your own standards and is completely nonsensical considering the whole complexity of you as a human being. So, next time, instead of thinking “I’m such an idiot!”, show yourself compassion. It’s okay to make mistakes, after all, you’re human.
- Personalization: The conviction that everything that happens is about you leads to shame and guilt. If your child is underperforming at school, you must be a bad mother. The truth is, you can’t control everything, and what other people do is their responsibility, not yours.
Spot That Thought
This is one of the first exercises I did in cognitive-behavioral therapy. If you haven’t tried yet, you definitely should. Track what you do and how you feel every day for at least two weeks, preferably a month. Whenever you feel really bad, try to identify the event and the thought that triggered your mood. It may not be so easy as it seems because negative thinking has become so natural to you that it feels as if it was a part of who you are. Intrusive, automatic thoughts pop into your head without you even noticing.
And that’s where mindfulness comes into play. By noticing and naming your unhealthy thinking habits, you can take control over them. Write down your automatic negative thoughts and your more objective responses to every one of them.
I totally agree that positive thinking is delusional, so don’t go for that. Think realistic and don’t punish yourself for what is beyond your control. Substituting your negative thoughts with more realistic ones will give you a self-esteem boost, which is exactly what you need to beat depression and keep it away.
For further details on how’s your negative thinking related to bad mood and how to overcome your unhealthy thinking habits, I recommend you reading David Burnes’s bestselling book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Based on the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, it offers many useful exercises that will entirely change the way you think.
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