At any given moment, we are held hostage by something we seldom acknowledge—our thoughts. The things we think about the breakup of a romantic relationship, a fight with a friend, or even about something as miniscule as getting a parking ticket dominates our lives without us ever really recognizing it.
As humans, we have the unique ability to reflect on events and circumstances, and while that is a good thing, it carries with it, a risk– the way we think about things has a profound affect on how we feel. Negative thinking can adversely impact not only our mood, but our physical health, too. Therefore, it is imperative to examine what we are thinking and treat our thoughts as mere constructs that we have the power to harness with a little effort.
Analyzing our thoughts is particularly crucial for those of us who have the tendency to be depressed. This is because those of us who suffer from depression regularly form inaccurate thoughts that we convince ourselves are true. These irrational thoughts, which are repeated over and over again, are known to therapists who practice cognitive behavioral therapy as cognitive distortions. Mental health professionals disagree on whether cognitive distortions cause depression or whether depression causes cognitive distortions, but it is universally recognized that such patterns of thought make us feel terrible about ourselves.
Common Cognitive Distortions
There several different cognitive distortions or mind traps that we can fall into. Here are some of them:
Over-generalization: one negative thing occurs and you convince yourself that it is going to happen in all other similar situations.
Emotional reasoning: you feel a certain way, so you think it must be the truth.
All-or-nothing thinking: you see things in black and white. Either things are totally great or a disaster.
Mental filter: you only remember the negative things that have happened to you during the course of life and shut out all the positive things.
Should statements: you try to motivate yourself by dwelling on the things you think you should be able to do.
Mind-reading: you conclude that someone is thinking something negative about you.
Mental health professionals believe that there are about ten cognitive distortions to which depressed people repetitively subject themselves. But it’s important to note that you are not stuck and that these patterns of thought can be changed.
Changing Your Thoughts
One of the most helpful things you can do is to give all of your negative thoughts a reality check. For instance, if your partner has just ended a romantic relationship and you think that you will never be loved again, you can ask yourself, “What evidence do I have that I will never be loved again?” Since you’ve been in romantic relationships before this one, there should be no reason why you won’t find another partner who will love you when you are ready. In addition, you can think of all the friends and family members who still love you. In this way you can realize that you are committing the cognitive distortion of over-generalization because you are taking one event and magnifying it to apply to all situations.
Another way to battle cognitive distortions is to engage in reframing an event. Perhaps something negative happened to you, but you must ask yourself if anything positive came out of it. In the case of the end of a romantic relationship, you can tell yourself that you learned many new things from your ex-partner that have made you a much more interesting and well-rounded person and that you can bring this to your next relationship. If you can think along these lines, you might not feel as though you are at a dead end, but at the precipice of a new beginning.
Training your mind to challenge irrational thoughts and replace them with more accurate thinking is extremely difficult, particularly for people who suffer from depression. But the reward justifies the effort you will have to put into it. Instead of walking around feeling unhappy and that the world is out to get you, you’ll have a different outlook on life—one that will fill you with enthusiasm for the day at hand and not affect your mood when things don’t go exactly your way.
About the writer: Wendy Aron is the author of Hide & Seek: How I Laughed at Depression, Conquered My Fears and Found Happiness.