Let’s talk psychology for a moment here.
When we’re depressed and have been for a while, our patterns of thinking can change and most often they change to reflect our general state of mind. In other words, we feel bad so we start thinking badly which makes us feel worse. This is called cognitive distortion and there are several patterns of cognitive distortion which can arise when we are depressed. If we can become aware of these negative patterns of thinking then we can give ourselves the power to answer back to our negativity and garner more control over our thoughts and how we react to things. Basically, we can stop our depression from controlling us and start to take control over our depression.
Some common thinking distortions are:
Black and White thinking (AKA Polarised thinking)
When we think this way we see things as black and white, hence the name. We see only perfection or failure with no in-between. Everything falls into an either/or and our feelings about situations or people (or ourselves) can be exaggerated in order to fit in with the either/or categories. The thing is though, things aren’t ever as simple as perfect or terrible, the world isn’t just black and white. There are endless shades of grey in the middle which is where most things fall and we must remember this and we must learn to see the beauty in the grey areas instead of dismissing them or living in fear of them. Sometimes things are just okay, not amazing and not terrible, and that is perfectly fine.
When we overgeneralise, we come to a general conclusion based on a single piece of evidence. Depression especially can make us think like this. If we, for example, get rejected for a job then we may start to believe that there is no point in applying for any more jobs as we will end up being rejected for all of them and there is no point. Except there is a point, and one single rejection or one single bad event does not set the tone for everything to come in the future. Oftentimes everything that came before the bad event has been somewhat positive and we must remember to look at the bigger picture if we notice ourselves starting to overgeneralise. We cannot base our view of something or someone on a single event and if we look at similar events in our past we will usually realise that for the most part, it’s not been all bad and so it won’t be all bad in the future.
Depression has a lovely habit of making us extremely introspective and self critical and so we often find ourselves taking the blame for everything that happens and feel that everything that happens, especially negative things are somehow reflections of ourselves. I’m extremely guilty of this. I find myself apologising several times a day for things that are nothing to do with me at all because I feel somehow responsible for them. We must remember though, we aren’t the only person in the world and we aren’t the sole factor in whether things work out or not, and that is a very good thing. We are a small part of a big world and most things are out of our hands, which may be a slight existential crisis inducing revelation, but it is also the most comforting realisation we have.
Ever been in a situation which has made you sad or frustrated and then decided that you hate doing whatever it was and in turn avoided doing it again in the future? That’s emotional reasoning. When we reason with our emotions we allow them to dictate what we like and dislike and what we can and can’t do and we use them as hard evidence of the way things are. We can withdraw from people and activities because they once led to negative emotions and we can become bitter thanks to the feelings we attach to our memories. Look at the facts though, does the fact that something once made you feel a bit rubbish mean that that thing is completely rubbish and not worth doing again? Probably not. Give it another chance and remember that facts are always far better evidence for the way things are than feelings.
When we start fortune telling we make predictions about what people will say and do or how things will be with no hard evidence to support that prediction. Overthinkers of the world, I’m looking at you right now. (I’m also a huge overthinker). I’ve avoided important conversations with people and events because in my head they’ve gone terribly when in reality, they would have been fine and probably quite enjoyable. Sometimes we have to face our predictions head on and by doing that we can learn a lot. Next time you’re overthinking and predicting how terribly something will go, set yourself the challenge to do it, because you can do it, and by doing it you’ll see that your prediction was way off and usually, things aren’t terrible and they’re actually pretty great.
Living by Fixed Rules
Depression makes us think about what we ‘should’ do, especially when we don’t feel like doing anything and it makes us feel guilty for not living up to all of our shoulds, woulds and coulds. If there’s one thing I’d suggest you actively do to make yourself feel better, it’s to remove these words from your vocabulary. Instead of looking at what you should do, focus on what you have done and what you can do. So you feel like you should clean your house, but right now all you can manage is to get out of bed and have a little something to eat, great! It’s still an achievement to just get yourself up and about when you feel like curling back up and going to sleep for a week. The world will not end if you put off doing whatever you think you should do for one more day, no matter what your depression is telling you.
There are more thinking distortions than this and if you’d like to research them more a quick google search will give you a plethora of information, or if books are more your thing, this little book here has a lovely section on them and ways to combat them as well as loads of other information and activities to help you to understand and take more control over your depression.
By educating ourselves about the issues that affect us when we have a mental health problem, we can start to build a metaphorical toolbox which we can dip into when we need to focus on looking after ourselves and getting better, and hopefully, by learning a little more about thinking distortions you can begin to notice them more in yourself and combat them before they spiral.