Link Between Thoughts and Depression
Shortly following graduate school, I attended a post-graduate training about how to work with clients experiencing anxiety and depression. The presenter explained how your thoughts make you depressed.
To help us as therapists understand how vulnerable and difficult it is to take an honest look at distorted thoughts that lead to depression, he gave us an assignment.
He asked us to write one negative thought we had about ourselves on our nametag. He asked us to choose one that we were willing to challenge to see if it was a true or a distorted thought. He announced that if we had the courage to look at the thought personally, we would feel a shift inside.
“After all,” he announced, “our clients aren’t the only ones with depression or anxiety.” Although the request was optional, most participants complied. The experience that followed helped shape my career.
We were asked to display our negative thought for all to see through the refreshment break. This made us feel very vulnerable.
I noticed most of the professors who had mentored and taught me how to be a therapist had opted out of the exercise and had removed their name tags altogether. This surprised me–the vulnerability was too high for them to participate. Following the break, we were divided into groups of five to discuss the feelings and insights gained from the experience.
One by one, we confessed our negative self-talk and looked at how we exaggerated or distorted the truth and how this altered our moods and feelings of self-worth.
One woman was visibly shaking as she spoke of how she hid her stupidity behind hard work so no one would guess the truth. Despite having a Ph.D. in Sociology and a successful career in community management, she was sure she was stupid. She didn’t see it as a distorted thought but a truth she needed to hide. She said that this belief was so heavy to carry that she was finally ready to look at it.
The burden of hiding it was crushing her.
Through the seminar, she realized her belief that she was inherently flawed was a childhood script from her father. (See Depression: “Childhood Scripts Carry Forward Into Adulthood”)
I witnessed a beautiful miracle as I watched the transformation of this woman through cognitive therapy. She looked at her childhood desire to please her father. She practiced the floating leaf guided imagery (see Premium Content: “Floating Leaf Guided Imagery”) to let automatic thoughts float on by rather than continue to embrace and nurture them.
She participated in mindfulness training where she learned to suspend judgement rather than attaching so much meaning to the thought. She allowed herself to grow and heal by seeing her thought as just a thought and not who she was.
For the next two days we did exercise after exercise, learning how to challenge and alter our own automatic thoughts. (See Depression: “Turning Away From Happiness”) We learned firsthand the courage we ask of our clients as we help them to face the beliefs that they have held as true.
You are not your thoughts.
Just because you think something, doesn’t make it true; but because you think it, it feels real to you. In three short days, I saw a woman of great courage literally transform before my eyes. She experienced relief from the barrage of negative self-criticism that had been her constant companion.
Allowing your mind to fill with negative self-talk takes a toll on your body. It is as if your brain is under siege. Your body responds with feelings of worthlessness and despair to the point that your brain chemistry is altered to fit your negative world view.
A client of mine, who we will call Samantha, came to me because her husband was threatening to divorce her. Samantha’s life-long struggle with depression was the catalyst for his threats. Early in the marriage, Samantha’s husband had comforted her and tried to talk her out of the continual negative view of herself.
Over the course of time, he grew tired of the effort needed and felt he had to leave her world of darkness. Despite working as a successful physical therapist and raising five children who were functioning well in life, Samantha was sure she was a failure. She told me that she was not lovable, that she needed to take care of everything herself, and that there was something inherently wrong with her.
She held herself up to an impossibly high standard and demanded the same of her husband and children. In complete despair, she moaned, “I always fail at everything. My marriage is a failure. I am the worst mother, and who knows if I will keep my job? I am doomed to be miserable.” (See Anxiety: “Cognitive Distortions” and Depression: “Turning Away From Happiness”)
There is a strong link between your thinking and your depression. With the constant inner dialogue Samantha subjected herself to, it is not surprising that she felt depressed.
Recognizing that your feelings of sadness and hopelessness do not magically appear from nowhere is the first step toward healing and wholeness. Everyone has mind chatter that makes up his or her internal dialogue.
If not controlled consciously, this background noise can be incessantly negative. Sometimes there is an element of truth to the automatic thoughts, but the depressed person exaggerates or distorts the way they look at things to such a degree that it is like putting gas on a small spark of flame.
The body explodes into flames of depression with the negative fuel. The good news is that a combination of cognitive therapy and mindfulness training can teach anyone the skills needed to reduce the intensity of their symptoms.
Cognitive Therapy teaches that thoughts influence your mood. Cognitive therapy can be used as a supplement to medication or as a stand-alone treatment.
Over time, the depressed person learns to challenge long-held false beliefs about themselves and life. Through this process, the depression decreases and is replaced with an overall sense of well-being. Moving from a distorted negative paradigm doesn’t not mean a swing over to a positive mental attitude.
A true sense of well-being comes from a realistic worldview, rather than a distorted paradigm on either end of the continuum.
The following are skills that cognitive therapy can teach you in order to help you heal:
1. Observe your thoughts without resistance. You don’t need to talk yourself out of the thought but suspend judgement. Just observe what the thought is.
2. See if there is another possible explanation or a different way you could look at the situation.
3. Evaluate if there are distortions or exaggerations of the truth in your thought.
4. Make a choice to accept the thought or let it float on by. This choice is made based on your core beliefs and values. (See Empowered Life Solutions Premium Content: Floating Leaf Guided Imagery)
When I consciously observed my thoughts and made a choice to smile at my fellow jogger, I increased my feeling of well-being. The return has been amplified in years of smiles back and forth between us.
If such a simple exchange can make a difference, think of what could happen in your more significant relationships and the important experiences of life.