Depression means you can barely get out of bed in the morning, the day seems like mud and every thought feels like a dark cloud. “What’s the use” is one of your pet phrases that may even lead to thoughts about suicide.
When we’re depressed, the obstacles in our path seem too big to move or avoid, so what’s the point of acting, when nothing seems to make any difference anyway? Sleeping and other passive escape activities make us feel even more drained and helpless, and we get stuck in a vicious cycle of “what’s the use” thinking, and lack of effective effort.
Gloomy thinking habits emphasize the darker side of every-day events. When we constantly emphasize the half-empty glass, we give ourselves little to be happy about. These persistent negative thoughts bring us down. We may not even realize we are making ourselves more depressed with pessimistic thinking. Thought habits run so deep, and have been with us so long, most of us aren’t even aware that our thinking affects our mood, and don’t realize that we have the ability to change those patterns.
Talking with a counselor helps us bring our thought patterns out into the open. Through counseling we can learn the kinds of thought patterns that bring us down. We can also increase our introspective awareness through meditation and keeping a journal. By carefully understanding our thoughts we begin to see how we are tricking ourselves into feeling bad, distorted our view of the world through a darkened lens.
We may find that we generalize negative thoughts, saying to ourselves that one bad thing means everything is bad. Or that one bad thing yesterday will make everything bad tomorrow. By allowing one bad event to permeate our mood we put a dark cloud over our world. In addition to seeing the dark side in every present event, we use our negative thinking to project forward into the future. We assume the worst and then become emotionally swamped by our negative fortune telling. Using distorted thinking we may also turn against ourselves or others,. For example, we may have the habit of ignoring praise, and only hearing criticism, so we become convinced that “no one” likes us.
Once we are aware of the tricks we are using to bring ourselves down, we can learn how to talk back to ourselves, refuting negative thoughts, and creating more positive ones. Through an orderly system of understanding our thoughts, and learning how to see through the negative tricks of our habits, we can lift our mood. Just as we’ve learned to think pessimistically, we can relearn this habit, and have more cheerful, optimistic thoughts. Motivated to escape from the trap of sadness and helplessness, we recognize that thinking is pulling us down into the dumps, and learn how to answer and change our own negative self talk.
In addition to changing the way we think, we can also actively assert our right to have positive thoughts by saying kind, soothing and encouraging words to ourselves. When we repeat these affirmations to ourselves, we verbally encourage ourselves to rise above the darkness. We can also count and list the good things life has brought us and that we bring to life, and learn to find a bright side of every situation.
Introducing positive thinking into our thought habits may seem strange at first, and we may despair of changing our dark thought habits. As we work to untie the knot of depression, it often helps us learn more about the childhood learning that got us started in the habit of negative thinking and feeling in the first place.
We all start out helpless in the world, but as our parents encourage us, and let us know our actions matter to them, we gain confidence in our worth. We also learn by listening to their beliefs about how effective they feel in the world. When our parents complain about their helplessness, or through abuse or neglect teach us that actions don’t matter, we form beliefs that color our world view. When we have deep persistent beliefs in our lack of ability to change our world, we give up.
Whatever started us thinking this way, we get caught up in helplessness, locking us into low self esteem. We think bad thoughts about ourselves, believe others don’t approve of us, and believe our actions are ineffective. Low self-esteem, helplessness and sadness team up to put us in a stranglehold.
As we start to dig out of this trap we may find ourselves facing old resentments about our childhood that we’ve buried under a lifetime of coping. As long as we try to cover up and ignore these feelings, we may find that they control us in ways we hadn’t even imagined. One of the critical steps to grow is to honestly face these feelings, grieve over lost opportunities, and let the past go.
As we deepen our understanding of the pain in our life, especially in our childhood, we can soothe it, heal it and move on. Healing the child within is hard work, but it’s important to break out of the patterns of helplessness and depression that were forged in our childhood experience.
Learning new habits for a happier, healthier state of mind requires work in a number of areas.
Our social network is important in counteracting the affects of loneliness. Friendships, family, relationships, work associations, religious affiliations, all the ways that people connect with each other also elevate our feelings. We may work on improving our social skills directly, in counseling or group therapy. Or we may find that improving our behavior around others comes as a bonus to the work we do to improve our mood. We may discover that some of our habits, such as complaining or excessively focusing on ourselves push other people away. As we stand on firmer footing within our selves we find we pleasure in our connections with people.
Meaning and values
To maintain mental energy and a sense of satisfaction, one of the prerequisites is a belief that our life has meaning. We need to have a passionate need to go in some direction. Not all of us are fortunate enough to know where we’re going. Perhaps we grew up in a chaotic family that presented no clear goals. Or just as bad, our parents were manipulative and controlling, and we rebelled, refusing to accept their direction, and are now floundering with no compass to guide our lives. To move forward in our life, we must discover the world of our own possibilities.
Because our body and mind are intricately interrelated, our choice of activities contributes to our mood. Excess sleeping or watching television passes the time but leaves us feeling drained. Alcohol may give us temporary relief, but it doesn’t contribute to positive change in our situation or outlook. In fact, alcohol chemically contributes to depression.
Physical activities such as walking or participating in sports can lift our mood, because they keep us focused and because they directly improve our body/mind sense of wellbeing. Hobbies give us a sense of curiosity, enthusiasm and accomplishment. Singing or learning to play a musical instrument attune us to the harmony of the spheres.
Anti-depressant medication brings many people back from the abyss and gives us the mental energy we need to deal with life. After all, our brain is an organ, and changing its chemistry profoundly affects the way it works. While medication improves our brain chemistry, we’ll still think along the same lines, in the same terms. Our minds have patterns of thinking developed from childhood, and until we develop new, more effective habits and beliefs, we continue with the same thought process. While medication gives us the mental energy to choose better options, we are still limited by the types of thoughts we think. Our mental habits work in parallel with our brain chemistry to shape the way we feel and behave.
Research consistently demonstrates that counseling is as effective as medicine in relieving depression, that counseling plus medication is more effective than either one alone, and that the effects of counseling last long after the medication stops. Many people who take anti-depressant medication feel a new energy, new willpower a new lease on life. One of the best places we can invest this energy is within ourselves, by delving into the patterns of thought that may be perpetuating a negative, self-defeating approach to life.
When we don’t have positive thinking habits we need to face the music and start to build them. Since our existing patterns have been built up through a lifetime, we need patience and energy to replace them with upbeat meaningful approaches to looking at life. Religion, faith and other belief systems help us explain life in a more positive light. Even in the worst life situations, we ultimately need to start thinking about our life in a healing framework that allows us to move beyond our pain. Instead of being trapped forever in the negative, we learn to think positively about those areas of our life that we can control.
See also: Affirmations, Anger, Assertiveness, Blame, Child Within, Cognitive Therapy, Existential Therapy, Faith, Meaning, Medication, Meditation, Self-esteem, Self Help, Self Talk, Twelve Steps, Values
Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns
Wherever you go, there you are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw
Care of the soul by Thomas Moore