Depressed Brain Says...
By Jack O’Dwyer
If you have depression, I hate to be the bearer of bad(?) news, but your brain is probably lying to you on a daily basis.
One of the earmarks of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety is called a “cognitive distortion” or “cognitive error”. Basically, it’s when your brain tells you something that isn’t necessarily true that makes you feel bad.
For example, maybe you forgot to do a homework assignment on time.
Depressed brain says: “Ugh, I’m such a failure. Clearly I shouldn’t even be here. I can’t even do one thing right.”
When, in reality, you forgot one homework assignment. You are not the first one to forget a homework assignment and this event is trivial in the grand scheme of things. There’s definitely a classmate of yours who also forgot that assignment or forgot a different assignment for the same class. However, your depressed brain takes this as concrete evidence that you are a worthless human being and flies all the way to the worst result it can come up with. This specific instance is also referred to as “catastrophic thinking” -- i.e. worst case scenario thinking.
It’s because of this that depression spirals and pits are so easy to fall into and hard to climb out of. Each thought progressively gets worse until you hit absolute rock bottom -- especially without intervention.
As if that isn’t enough to manage on its own, there are many different types of cognitive distortions. Here are some of the most common I’ve experienced:
Polarized or Black and White Thinking is only thinking in absolutes. Things are either good or terrible and there is no gray area.
Depressed Brain says: “You’re having trouble attaining this goal? You’ll never achieve it. You’ve completely failed after this one tiny mistake and will never be even close to perfect.”
Except everyone makes mistakes in daily life or when learning new skills. Chances are, if you try again, you’ll probably get it. No one is great at anything right off the bat.
Personalization is the act of taking everything -- even small things that probably have nothing to do with you -- personally.
Depressed Brain says: “The dog is sick! This is clearly your fault since you took her to that new dog park. She’s probably so angry at you now for making her catch a cold.”
However, in reality, she probably just caught the sniffles at random since it’s flu season and dogs can be germ magnets. She had a blast at the new park -- you saw her running around, yourself!
Negative Filtering is when you take only one bad aspect out of an experience or a situation.
Depressed Brain says: “You did really well on your exam…. But the professor corrected you in class today. This class is awful. I’m not good at understanding this material.”
The amount of students a professor corrects in a classroom setting is so astronomically high that there’s no way this could be personal and you aren’t an expert. If you were, you wouldn’t be in the class trying to learn about it.
Mislabeling is one of the ways Depressed Brain tries to make you feel bad about yourself.
Depressed Brain says: “You left your boots on the carpet and now it’s all dirty! You’re lazy, terrible, and don’t do anything for this house.”
Chances are, you were probably exhausted or simply forgot to move your shoes after you took them off. It goes without saying that this doesn’t make you lazy or terrible, and you probably contribute just fine to your household.
Jumping to Conclusions is… self-explanatory. Something happens, you make a snap judgement about what you think is the reason behind what occurred.
Depressed Brain says: “They haven’t texted you back in hours. You must have done something to make them mad.”
I can pretty much guarantee you that they fell asleep. My girlfriend does this to me all the time -- it’s either sleep or work.
What can be done about this? Well, a good goal to have is attempting to recognize and challenge these types of negative thought patterns when they appear. This can be really hard, especially when you’re in the middle of spinning out, but once you get a little practice it tends to get easier. I tend to step out of the situation when I can feel my mood take a drastic dip.
Once outside the situation, I look into it objectively. I try to find things that contradict what Depressed Brain is telling me. Shifting your focus from a bad thing that happened to something good, instead, can provide a decent crack in the gloom. Ask yourself, “Is there any other reason this could have happened?”
Sometimes it can be helpful to imagine you’re trying to comfort a friend instead of yourself -- since I’m much more likely to be gentler with a friend than I am inwardly. This is where having friends around can actually be incredibly helpful. I’ve found myself going to my friends and asking for their help to break me out of what I keep “hearing”.
In fact, having people around that you trust and care about you is some of the best advice I can give you. Depression can make you feel like you’re completely alone (or should be), so having a bunch of folks you can call on is an absolute godsend in crisis time. By no means should you make them responsible for your wellbeing, but lifelines are a good thing to have.
Obviously, as much as I can wait to begin my education down this path, I’m not a certified psychologist. Hugs and kisses from friends or family isn’t a prescription and “just deal with it on your own” isn’t solid advice. These are just the ways that help me cope while actively searching for other professional help. They’re quick band-aids for larger issues, and “positive thinking” shouldn’t be used as a cure-all for serious depression.
That said, I encourage you to try to challenge your Depressed Brain! You may just find that you’ll be able to push the thoughts back and make what would have been a debilitating event something you can manage.
*If you or someone you love is experiencing depressive thoughts or thoughts of harming themselves, please seek professional help from your local psychologist or social worker or call 1-800-273-8255.
“Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You (+ PDF Worksheets).” Positive Psychology Program - Your One-Stop PP Resource!, 16 Aug. 2018, positivepsychologyprogram.com/cognitive-distortions/.
Grohol, John M. “15 Common Cognitive Distortions.” Psych Central, 12 Apr. 2018, psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/.
Grohol, John M. “Fixing Cognitive Distortions.” Psych Central, 17 July 2016, psychcentral.com/lib/fixing-cognitive-distortions/.
Schimelpfening, Nancy. “Positive Thinking Techniques.” Verywell Mind, Verywellmind, June 18AD, 2018, www.verywellmind.com/depression-and-cognitive-distortions-1065378.
“Thinking Errors in Depression.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2 Dec. 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201612/thinking-errors-in-depression.