Identifying depressed thinking

Tackling depressed thinking is one of the most effective things you can do to build up longer-term resistance to depression. The first step in this is learning how to identify your own patterns of depressed thinking.

The depression habit spiral

The negative and pessimistic habits of thought that depression brings have an effect on your behaviour, brain chemicals and mood, reinforcing a downward depression habit spiral. By identifying and tackling these depressed thinking habits you can break into the depression habit spiral and turn it around.

Step 1: Understand what depressed thinking is

The ‘How Depression Works’ section provides explanations of the main types of depressed thinking, including those which relate to anxiety and anger spirals.

Step 2: Become a detective on yourself.

We all have an ‘internal running commentary’ of thoughts – “I’d better hurry, I’m going to be late. What an idiot! Why didn’t I get up when the alarm rang” and so on.┬áSpend a day or a week ‘tuning in to your internal running commentary’. You may be surprised at how negative and critical it is. Start to notice which thoughts make you feel particularly low.

Step 3: Keep a thought diary

Keeping a thought diary is the foundation for understanding how your thoughts affect your feelings. A good way to identify your unhelpful thoughts is to write them down in the ‘ABC’ format:

  • A stands for Activating Event
    Record any event or situation in which you experienced a strong negative emotion
  • C stands for the Consequences
    Write down your feelings at the time and rate the intensity of the one which best describes how you felt using a  scale of 0 to 100; also rate any actions you undertook as a result of the activating event
  • B stands for Beliefs
    Ask yourself what you were thinking of when the event occurred and what was going through your mind at the time; write down all these thoughts and underline the one that is most associated with the emotion that you rated in the previous step – in CBT this is called a ‘hot thought’; rate how much you believe this hot thought on a scale from 0 to 100

Step 4: Learn how to uncover depressed thinking

When you are identifying beliefs it is important to uncover the unhelpful thoughts underlying the initial response to the activating event. Ask yourself why you thought or felt something, or what is bad about the thing you identified. Write everything down no matter how silly or embarrassing it seems.

For example, if you noted that you felt upset when you saw your friend talking to someone else, you can ask what made you upset (“I thought she looked happy speaking to the other person and she always looks worried when she’s speaking to me”) and what’s bad about that (“She might be getting fed up with me”), and what does that say about me (“I’m a burden and I’ll end up with no friends”). Keep going until you have identified all the different thoughts and feelings that you can think of.

Step 5: Identify the types of depressed thinking

Look at the thoughts you have uncovered and start to see if you can identify some of the different types of depressed thinking that you know about including: mental filtering or ‘tunnel vision’, all-or-nothing thinking, emotional reasoning, personalisation and self bullying, jumping to conclusions, control freakery, catastrophising etc. See ‘Depressed thinking’ and ‘Anxiety & anger’ for more details or learn more from other CBT self-help materials.

Next: Challenging depressed thinking

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Depressed thinking
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