Depression and the power of negative thought
Most people believe that any feeling or emotion they feel (anger, sadness, fear) are the direct result of external events, situations or the behaviour of other people. For example we may find ourselves saying things like: “My partner made me so angry the other day” or “Not getting that job I applied for has made me so depressed”. When we say these things to ourselves we are assuming that the something or someone other than ourselves are solely responsible for the emotions we are experiencing.
We almost all make this assumption automatically and very rarely stop and consider whether this assumption is really true. If we do step back and analysis this process we may begin to see that between the external event and our emotional response there is another step.
This other step that I’m referring to is our perception or our interpretation of that situation or that person’s actions. It is how we see something or someone and what we think about it or them that influence how we feel. It is often our thoughts or our beliefs that influence our emotional and behavioural response.
For example, imagine you arrive at a party and wave across the room at a friend named Simon. Instead of waving back Simon does not respond. How would you feel if you thought, “Man, Simon is rude! He won’t even respond to my friendly wave, he is a really nasty piece of work I can’t believe I was ever nice to him!” What about if you thought, “Oh my goodness how embarrassing. Simon must think I’m really stupid and boring; he wants to pretend he doesn’t know me. Nobody is going to want to talk to me all night!” How about if you thought, “Simon is talking to someone else right now, maybe he doesn’t want to be rude to them, or perhaps he hasn’t seen me wave from over here. I’m sure I’ll catch up with him in a moment.” You may well have noticed that you’ve felt three different emotions as a result of those three different thoughts. Often we are not aware of these thoughts as they happen automatically and very quickly, but those thoughts are there and they can affect our feelings.
The way that we think, or the types of thoughts we have are not always clear to us; just as we may walk the same way home every day without being conscious of the route we’re taking. Some types of thought are so habitual that they become automatic. These automatic thoughts play a significant role in how we feel. Noticing them and understanding them is an important aspect of addressing low mood.
There are generally three types of automatic thought:
- Neutral – I will buy some bread today
- Positive – I am really good at this
- Negative – I’m finding this task difficult, I must be stupid.
Whilst all three types of thought happen extremely regularly, it is the negative automatic thoughts that cause us the most distress. People experiencing depression will often notice they have a great deal of negative thoughts about themselves and the world around them. These negative thoughts are also called unhelpful thoughts as they often lead to unpleasant feelings and unhelpful actions.
We are starting to see how unhelpful thoughts can lead to distressing emotions. It would make sense therefore to see if it is possible to make these thoughts more helpful, or at least less unhelpful! So, how can we do this? Well, the first step is to become aware of the unhelpful thoughts.
The ABC Method is a well-known technique used for analysing thoughts, and emotions.
It asks you to record a sequence of events in terms of:
- A - Activating Event (also sometimes described as a 'Trigger')
- B - Beliefs (for example, the thoughts that occur to you when the Activating Event happens)
- C - Consequences - how you feel and behave when you have those Beliefs (consequences may be divided into two parts: your actions and your emotions)
Becoming aware of our unhelpful thoughts is the first step to making them less impactful. The next step is to challenge them and try to find more helpful and balanced thoughts.
Here are some helpful questions to think about when challenging thoughts:
- Are there other ways to look at this situation?
- How might someone else (a friend or family member) look at this situation?
- If I were not feeling low, would I think this way?
- Is it helpful for me to be thinking like this?
By recognising the role of our thinking in our moods, identifying our unhelpful thoughts and attempting to dispute them, we give ourselves a better chance of avoiding depression.
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