A few years ago I saw a documentary on mental illness and depression. One of the speakers was a self-effacing, quietly spoken psychiatrist called David Burns. He said something that shocked me. Over 70% of depressed people who read his book ‘Feeling Good’ felt better.*
I was absolutely intrigued – what could a book possibly do to help the vast majority of people out of depression? Even though I wouldn’t describe myself as a depressive, I’d had enough depressed experiences to want to know more! And I’ve met and mentored enough entrepreneurs to know that anxiety and depression are at critical levels amongst this group. I bought the book and found it a fascinating and practical read. Here’s a short summary with practical tools at the end. I hope it’s helpful to you or anyone else struggling with this overwhelming condition.
The fundamental principles of the book are simple –
- All your moods are created by your thoughts
- When you’re depressed, your thoughts are dominated by a persistent negativity
- The negative thoughts that cause your depression nearly always contain gross distortions. Or to put it another way – every bad feeling you have is the result of your distorted negative thinking. Wow.
Conveniently, most of our unhelpful thoughts fall into just 10 patterns of thinking (Cognitive Distortions). These ten distortions form many, if not all of our depressed states.
- All-or-nothing thinking. You see things in extremes of black or white, or absolutes. If your performance falls short of perfection, you see yourself as a total failure.
- Overgeneralisation. You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- Mental Filter. You pick out a negative detail in any situation, and focus on it exclusively and therefore see the whole situation as negative. Like a drop of ink that colours the entire beaker of water.
- Disqualifying the Positive. You reject positive experiences by insisting they ‘don’t count’ for some reason or other. In this way you maintain a negative belief, even though it’s contradicted in your every day experiences.
- Jumping to Conclusions.You jump to a negative conclusion even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. Two examples of jumping to conclusions are “mind reading” and “fortune telling.”
Mind Reading. You make the assumption that other people are looking down on you or thinking badly of you. You’re so convinced about this that you don’t even bother to check it out and act as if it’s true.
Fortune Telling. You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you are convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.
- Magnification. You exaggerate your own errors, fears or imperfections. “Oh God – I made a mistake. My life is over!” This is also known as ‘catastrophising’, turning ordinary negative events into nightmares. Or Minimisation, where we shrink our own good qualities or good fortune until they appear insignificant.
- Emotional Reasoning. You assume that your negative emotions accurately reflect things the way they really are. You take your emotions as evidence for the truth. “I feel like a failure, therefore I am a failure’.
- Should Statements. You try to motivate yourself with ‘shoulds and shouldn’ts’, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you did anything. The emotional consequence is guilt. And when you direct ‘should’ statements towards others, you feel anger, frustration and resentment.
- Labeling and mislabeling. This is an extreme form of overgeneralisation. It involves describing an event or person with language that is highly coloured and emotionally loaded. “I’m a total loser’. Or “He’s a complete arsehole.’
- Personalisation. You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which you weren’t primarily responsible for. This is the mother of guilt.
Every time you feel depressed about something, try to identify a corresponding negative thought you had just prior to and during the depression. Because these thoughts have actually created your bad mood, by learning to restructure them, you can change your mood. Writing them down is incredibly helpful – try the following technique.
The Triple-Column Technique
Use this sheet to try the following exercise next time you’re feeling depressed –
- Ask yourself ‘What thoughts am I thinking right now? What am I saying to myself?” Write them in the first column.
- Read over the list of 10 cognitive distortions (on the sheet). Look at which one this thought falls into. Learn precisely how you are twisting things or blowing them out of proportion. Write the distortion in the second column.
- Substitute a more objective or helpful thought. It sometimes helps to imagine what your best friend might say to you. Above all, try and find thoughts that are kinder and more loving. Write them in the third column.
I realise it’s totally impractical to do a worksheet every time you have an upsetting thought, but hopefully practising once or twice and understanding the principles will help. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
WIth love x
* Five controlled outcome studies published in scientific journals over the past decade show that 70% of depressed individuals who read Feeling Good, improved within a four-week period even though they received no other treatment.
Photo credit – Elisabetta Foco. Unsplash.com