Doctors believe that genetics, chemical imbalances in the brain, a history of trauma, and triggering life events are just a few of the most common reasons why people become depressed.
However, it’s also important to consider what keeps depression going.
Many therapists, particularly those who practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), believe that the way we respond to life events has more of an impact on our mood than the events themselves.
Aaron Beck and other pioneers in this field have identified common thinking errors and cognitive distortions that keep people locked in a state of misery and despair.
They tended to view the world, themselves, and those around them in ways that fed into their depression.
He discovered that when he taught people how their thought patterns maintained their negative moods, they were empowered to take control of their mental state.
Here are five cognitive distortions common in people with depression:
1. Black and white thinking
The belief that something or someone is either completely good or completely bad.
This kind of thinking discounts any gray areas. Black and white thinkers are quick to make harsh judgments, which can damage their relationships.
Example: Your sister phones you one evening.
Although your conversation is pleasant at first, you end up arguing.
When you put the phone down, you start telling yourself how awful your sister is, and how you wish she could be nicer.
You think, “What have I done to have such a mean sister? Why is she so horrible?”
The tendency to blow everything out of proportion and assume that everything that could go wrong will go wrong.
If you catastrophize, you might spend a lot of time thinking through worst-case scenarios, which can be highly upsetting.
You may find yourself plagued by intrusive, unpleasant thoughts.
Example: You are running late for work.
As you sit in your car in heavy traffic, you start to think about how your boss will be mad at you, how mad you are that your day is already off to a bad start, and how you might even lose your job for turning up late.
3. Jumping to conclusions
Operating under the assumption that you know – even without much evidence – what someone else is thinking and feeling.
In some cases, depressed people will reach an erroneous conclusion within seconds.
They do not consider alternative explanations.
Example: You see an acquaintance in the street.
You call out a greeting and wave, but they don’t respond.
You think, “Great! They don’t like me anymore. Typical. Why do I bother being nice to anyone?”
It later transpires that they simply didn’t see you because they were hurrying to an appointment.
4. Emotional reasoning
The assumption that your emotions reflect reality.
You believe that the strength of your feelings is a reliable indicator of some objective truth.
Emotional reasoning can be very compelling, even when you know it is irrational.
Example: You feel nervous before meeting someone for a first date.
You begin to tell yourself that you are stupid, boring or both.
Because you feel this way, you automatically assume that it must be true.
5. Filtering out the positive
The habit of discounting positive aspects of a person, event, or situation.
Someone who falls into this thinking trap will instead fixate on things that go wrong.
They may devote a considerable amount of time to thinking about relatively minor details and lose sight of the bigger picture.
Example: You give a presentation at work, and cough a few times towards the end.
Although your boss compliments your talk, you spend the following hours berating yourself for appearing unprofessional, completely overlooking the fact that the presentation was a success overall.
You think, “Why does everything go wrong for me! It was a total disaster! I couldn’t stop coughing!”
Recognizing these patterns can be the first step to making changes.
The next time you engage in negative self-talk, see if you can spot any of the patterns in this list.
Try not to judge yourself for falling into these cognitive traps; when you feel depressed, it’s almost inevitable.
Instead, gently challenge the thought.
For instance, if you catch yourself filtering out the positives, take a moment to remember what has gone right recently.
If the idea of changing your thought patterns appeals to you, find a CBT therapist experienced in working with depression.
They can help you identify your destructive cognitive distortions and help you build a healthier perception of yourself and the world.