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Depression and Patterns of Thinking

In the May issue, I spoke about depression being linked to a range of factors – including our early family environment, learned patterns of thinking and problem solving, and social connection. This issue takes a closer look at some of the patterns of thinking that can contribute to depression. Understanding and interrupting these patterns can help lower our risk to depression.

Managing uncertainty We live in a rapidly changing world and the 24x7 news cycle, seems, if anything, to add to the uncertainty. We also live in a society that provides us with a relatively high degree of freedom regarding the choices we make – where we live, the work we do, how we spend our time, etc. Since we end up living with our choices, this freedom comes with the uncertainty of whether we make good or poor choices.

Living with uncertainty means that we face questions regarding the what-ifs of life? If we dwell on the what-ifs, our worries can turn into a style of thinking called rumination – churning things over in the mind. Research has identified rumination as a risk factor for depression.

Rumination tends to focus on abstract questions such as “Why do these things happen to me?” and “What’s wrong with me that I can’t cope?” These questions often don’t have an answer and can lead a person to conclude: “there is nothing I can do about it.” This can create a negative state of mind, which makes the problem seem larger, increasing our sense of helplessness. In this state of mind, we risk becoming depressed about the past, and/or anxious about the future.

Tips on avoiding and interrupting rumination:

  • Turn abstract thoughts into concrete problems.

  • Focus on the concrete parts of a situation and any actions you can take. For example, a person may wonder: “What did my boss say to me that upset me so much?” and then decide: “I could ask my boss for some feedback on how I am handling my work.”

  • Create distance from worried thoughts and give your brain a break by engaging in other activities, for example exercise, a hobby, meeting with friends, meditation or prayer.

  • Remember, action reduces uncertainty.

Making sense of what happens to us In many ways, life is about navigating a series of challenges. How we interpret or make sense of what happens to us, can play a large role in how we respond to these challenges. Sense-making involves coming up with explanations or appraisals for situations and events.

Seek Quality versus Quantity - Our minds are sense-making machines and will work overtime in coming up with lots of possible explanations for why things happen to us. However, negative appraisals can keep us stuck and increase our sense of doubt and uncertainty. Negative appraisals include:

  • Making negative predictions about the future

  • Remembering the things that have gone wrong more than what has gone right

  • Underestimating your ability to cope

  • Focusing on the negative while ignoring all other aspects of a situation

  • Assuming negative motives and explanations for events

  • Thinking in terms of shoulds (expectations or rules about how you and others must behave)

The key to interrupting patterns of negative appraisal is to test our interpretations against reality. For example, rather than assume we know what another person is thinking, we can ask them.

Managing our thought life is like weeding a garden – we need to pull out the weeds to give room for the plants to grow. Even so, difficult life experiences can cast a shadow and leave us doubting our ability to make sense of situations. Psychological counselling can help to overcome hurtful events from the past so that they don’t continue to maintain self-limiting patterns of thinking into the future. This is important for managing and preventing depression.

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