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Depression and Negative Thoughts

In many cases, depression has a biological basis. However, sometimes depression is actually the result of negative thoughts, or faulty thought patterns. Whichever the case may be, negative thoughts will make any depression worse. If, for instance, something bad happens and we tell ourselves such things as, "I knew this would happen;" "I'm no good;" "I'm a total failure;" or "Nothing ever goes my way;" these thoughts can send us spiraling right down into a deep (or deeper) depression. We are what we think.

The good news is that we can have control over our thoughts. If we think something often enough, we begin to believe that it's true, whether that thinking is positive or negative. To conquer depression, we must stop those automatic negative thoughts and replace them with more positive, truthful ones.
Cognitive Therapy, the most common form of therapy used to treat depression, is directed at ten "cognitive distortions," or faulty thought patterns, that send us into (or worsen) depression.

TEN COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS (and strategies to beat them):

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking:
John recently applied for a promotion in his firm. The job went to another employee with more experience. John wanted this job very badly and now feels that he will never be promoted. He feels that he is a total failure in his career.

Strategy: This type of thinking is characterized by absolute terms like "always," "never," and "forever". Few situations are ever this absolute. There are generally gray areas. Eliminate these words from your vocabulary except for the cases where they truly apply and look for a more accurate description of the situation. Here's how John could have coped with not getting that promotion:

"I wanted this job very much, but it went to someone with more experience. This is disappointing to me, but it doesn't mean I'm not a good employee. There will be other opportunities available in the future. I'll keep working on my skills so that I'll be ready for them when they arrive. This one setback does not mean my career is over. Overall, I have excelled in my work."

2. Overgeneralization:
Linda is very lonely and often spends most of her time at home. People sometimes suggest that she should get out and meet people. Linda feels that it is useless to try to meet people. She believes that no one really could like her.

Strategy: When you overgeneralize, you take an isolated case and assume that all others are the same. The next time you catch yourself overgeneralizing, remind yourself that no two people are exactly the same. There may be mean and superficial people in this world, and there may even be people who dislike you. But not every single person will fit this description. By assuming that everyone doesn't like you, you are building a wall that will prevent you from having what you crave the most--friendship.

3. Mental Filter:
Mary is having a bad day. As she drives home, a kind gentleman waves her to go ahead of him as she merges into traffic. Later in her trip another driver cuts her off. She grumbles to herself that there are nothing but rude and insensitive people in her city.

Strategy: When a person falls victim to mental filters they are mentally singling out only the bad events in their lives and overlooking the positive. Learn to look for that silver lining in every cloud. It's all about how you choose to let events effect you. Mary could have turned her whole day around if she had paid attention to that nice man who went out of his way to help her, instead of focusing on the one she felt was rude and insensitive.

4. Disqualifying the Positive:
Rhonda just had her portrait made. Her friend tells her how beautiful she looks. Rhonda brushes aside the compliment by saying that the photographer must have touched up the picture, because she never looks that good in real life.

Strategy: People with depression are masters at taking the good in a situation and turning it into a negative. Part of this comes from a tendency to low self-esteem. "I feel like I just don't deserve it," one might say. The way to turn this around is actually very simple. The next time someone compliments you, resist that little voice inside that says you don't deserve it. Just simply say "thank you," and smile. The more you do this, the easier it will become.

5. Jumping to Conclusions:
Chuck is waiting for his date at a restaurant. She is now twenty minutes late. Chuck grumbles to himself that he must have done something wrong and now she has stood him up. Meanwhile across town, his date is stuck in traffic.

Strategy: This is a case of someone falling victim to his own insecurities-what some people call a "self-fulfilling prophecy." He expects the worst and begins preparing early for the disappointment. By the time he finds out that all his fears were unfounded, he's worked himself into a frenzy, and for what? If you have found yourself in this situation, consider this strategy for the future: Next time do this: give them the benefit of the doubt. You'll save yourself a lot of unnecessary worry.

6. Magnification and Minimization:
Scott is playing football. He bungles a play that he's been practicing for weeks. He later scores the winning touchdown. His teammates compliment him. He tells them he should have played better; the touchdown was just dumb luck.

Strategy: Ever looked through a telescope from the wrong direction? Everything looks tinier than it really is. When you look through the other end everything looks larger. People who fall into the magnification/minimization trap look at all their successes through the wrong end of the telescope and their failures through the other end.

What can you do to stay away from this error? Remember the old saying, "he can't see the forest for the trees"? When one mistake bogs us down, we forget to look at the overall picture. Step back and look at the forest now and then. Learn to see things realistically in light of the bigger picture, not one isolated event. Overall Scott played a good game. So what if he made a mistake?

7. Emotional Reasoning:
Laura looks around her untidy house and feels overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning. "This is hopeless," she says to herself. "Why should I even try?"

Strategy: Laura has based her assessment of the situation on how it makes her feel, and not how it really is. When a situation feels overwhelming, try this: Break the task down into smaller ones. Then prioritize what is most important to you. Now, do the first task on your list. Believe it or not, you will begin to feel better and ready for more. The important thing is to just do something towards your goal. No matter how small, it's a start and will break you out of feeling helpless. Learn to separate your actions from your emotions.

8. Should Statements:
David is sitting in his doctor's waiting room. His doctor is running late. David sits and stews, thinking, "With how much I'm paying him he should be on time. He ought to have more consideration." He ends up feeling bitter and resentful.

Strategy: We all think things should be a certain way, but let's face it, they aren't. Concentrate on what you can change, and if you can't change it, accept it as part of life and go on. Dealing with things the way they are, instead of the way you want them to be, will make a big difference in your life. Your mental health is more important than "the way things should be."

9. Labeling and Mislabeling:
Donna just cheated on her diet. "What a fat pig I am!" she thinks.

Strategy: What Donna has done is label herself as lazy and hopeless. When we label ourselves we set ourselves up to become whatever that label entails. This is another example of the "self-fulfilling prophecy" previously referred to. However, this can just as easily work to our advantage.

Here's what Donna could have done to make labeling work in her favor. She could have considered the fact that up until now she has been very strong. She could then forgive herself for only being human and only consider this is a temporary setback that she can overcome, since she has already proven herself successful by her previous weight loss. With this type of positive thinking, Donna will be back "on the wagon" in no time.

10. Personalization:
Jean's son is doing poorly in school. She feels that she must be a bad mother. She feels that it's all her fault that he isn't studying.

Strategy: Jean is taking all the responsibility for how her son is doing in school. She is failing to take into consideration that her son is an individual who is ultimately responsible for himself. She can do her best to guide him, but in the end it is he who controls his actions. Next time you find yourself doing this, ask yourself, "Would I take credit if this person were doing something praiseworthy?" Most likely you would say, "No, he accomplished that by himself." So why blame yourself when he does something not so praiseworthy? Beating yourself up is not going to change his behavior. Only he can do that.

Chances are that you have found yourself in at least one (probably several) of the above scenarios. I know I did! The good news is that you can change your negative thought patterns by following the strategies outlined above. Antidepressant medications have proven effective in helping people with depressive disorders; however, the greatest help for people with depressive disorders is not found in a pill bottle. Medication can only go so far-your greatest source of help will be you, and the greatest way you can help yourself is to have a positive attitude…and the best way to have a positive attitude is to change your negative thoughts into positive thoughts.

About the Author

Michele Soloway has dealt with bipolar disorder from a very young age. Her grandmother, mother, brother, herself, and her teenage son all have the disorder. She also lost her sister to suicide because of bipolar disorder. Michele has a blog for bipolar survivors at, and is also a contributing writer to and

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