This is the second post in a series on tools to deal with depression. The first post can be found here.
I generally focus on how to live well when you have recovered from depression, but don’t yet know how to build up the positive in your life. But we all know that depression is not a straight line. Even after you have dragged yourself out of the thick of it, there will still be days when it makes its presence known. I believe that many of the same tools and techniques I talk about using post-depression can also be useful on those darker days.
I have written before about how our thoughts are not necessarily reliable. I have offered techniques for working through the lies our mind makes up to protect us, but do those same techniques work against the lies of depression? Yes, but not in exactly the same way. Dealing with the kind of thoughts that come up during depression requires a subtly different approach then dealing with thoughts after the depression has passed.
Questioning Thoughts. Thoughts are just words, and the words in our head are not necessarily reliable. Voices in our mind born of fear and judgment distort the truth for us often enough when we feel healthy, but in depression our mind lies to us even more. It tells us that we always will feel this way, that there is no way out, that we are worthless, that nobody cares, that nobody will ever care…. You know the thoughts I’m talking about. They are lies, but they often sound like truth in the moment.
The key is to learn to question these thoughts. First, ask yourself “Is this true?” Sometimes that is enough. Sometimes the thought doesn’t even stand up to that much scrutiny and it falls away easily. But often, especially in depression, this isn’t enough.
If the thought still feels true, ask yourself “Is this helpful?” By that, I mean, is this thought inspiring me to take positive action or is it making the situation worse? If it is making things worse, then it isn’t helpful. And if the thought makes you miserable, or contributes to your misery, then it can’t be the whole truth, no matter how it feels. You were meant to thrive, which means that the truth will support your functioning. I know it doesn’t feel that way now, but it is the truth.
If the thought isn’t helpful, then it is time to take a closer look at it. Even if the thought feels true, if it makes you miserable then there has to be more to the situation then you are seeing. Are there any situations (real or theoretical) in which the thought isn’t true? Has there been any time in your life when the thought wasn’t true (think hard about this one – depression has a way of hiding memories of times when we were not depressed)?
For example, let’s say that I am very depressed, and stuck in the thought “I am a lazy failure.” I ask myself if it is true, and decide that it is (remember, I’m depressed). Then I ask myself “Is this helpful?” and am forced to admit that it is not. When I think that way I take no action at all, beyond wallowing in my misery. Not helpful. So, if the thought makes me feel worse, then it’s time to loosen it a bit. I make a list of at least three ways in which I am not a lazy failure. In depression this may be difficult, but stick with it. My list might look something like this:
- I fed my cat this morning, and thus have successfully taken care of her.
- I walked to the store to buy olive oil, even though I just wanted to watch Doctor Who fan videos on youtube.
- I washed the dishes, cooked dinner, and mostly cleaned up afterwards, none of which are the actions of a lazy person, and which I have been conveniently editing out of my memories of the day.
You will probably find yourself coming up with all sorts of reasons why the evidence you found isn’t valid or isn’t important or is overshadowed by the mountains of evidence you have already found for the original thought. The brain looks for evidence to support what it thinks is true, so that is only natural. Just try to return your attention to the new evidence as often as you can.
You are not your thoughts. Especially when you are mired in depression, sometimes it is hard to question your thoughts. All of the dire predictions and self-cruelty you brain hurls at you feels all too accurate. When that happens, I want you to take a deep breathe. There is nothing wrong with you for being stuck in these thoughts, and I’m not going to try to convince you that they are wrong. Not if they feel truthful. But those thoughts are still causing you pain, right? So what do you do?
I want you to twist the thought ever so slightly. Begin to preface it with “I notice I am thinking….” and finish the thought from there. So “I am a pathetic loser with no friends and terrible fashion sense” becomes “I notice I am thinking that I am a pathetic loser with no friends and terrible fashion sense.” It’s a very small, very subtle shift, but it starts to loosen the hold which the thought has on you. By rephrasing the thought that way you are no longer identifying yourself with the thought, or identifying the thought as absolute truth.
Depression is hard, and I know that none of these ideas will make it go away. That takes time, patience, and a lot of kindness towards yourself. But I do believe that taking a closer look at your thoughts can make it a little bit easier to bear. If you need any help applying these practices to your life, you know where to find me!