Friday, October 16, 2009

Taking On Depression: Part 2: Change Your Thinking

As I’ve stated before, in order to overcome depression something has to change. More accurately, you have to change something, because what you have been doing is clearly not working for you if you are depressed. One of the most important, effective, and perhaps most challenging changes you can make is in your thinking. What does your thinking have to do with how you’re feeling? Everything! While many believe that pleasant thoughts flow when you’re feeling good, the reverse is also the case: positive thoughts generate positive feelings. When immersed and perhaps feeling trapped in depression’s hallmark feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, you have first succumbed to thoughts that create a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and/or worthlessness.

I say ‘succumbed’ because you are unconsciously complicit with, or acquiescing to, negative thoughts, something easily done because they are often automatic, non-stop, and not usually subjected to our scrutiny. If we did examine them, we would find that they are also frequently unencumbered by reality and capital ‘T’ Truth. Our wakeful but unobserved thinking can carry a lot of mood deflating content consisting of fact-less opinions, invalid assumptions, skewed perceptions, misinterpretations, suppositions, pessimistic expectations, etc., aptly referred to by 12-step programs as “stinkin’ thinkin.” It is a disempowering, disabling cascade of subliminal thoughts that may begin with such phrases as, You never… I can’t…, I’m not…, I don’t…, If only…, which foreclose on all the possibilities lying just beyond worst case scenarios and a constricted imagination. Such thinking not only generates depression but shows up sooner or later in minor or major depleting, self-defeating, irrational, offensive or anti-social behaviors, and sometimes in quite significant emotional pain, as well. It can muck up our plans, screw up our relationships, interfere with our performance, and sink our mood.

But, just as 12-step participants learn to change their thinking in order to free themselves from their addictive behaviors, those with depression can do the same. You can exercise your option to become more aware of your thoughts, evaluate their truth and validity, and reject the distorted thinking that lurks behind and gives rise to every depression. And then you can substitute more accurate and positive thoughts that reflect reality, generate new energy, and inspire action.

Observing and changing what you think appears so simple and elemental a strategy that it may seem to trivialize the painful and debilitating experience of depression. However, simple does not mean easy. Anyone who makes the effort to change his/her thinking is quickly disabused of the belief that it is easy. It is a skill that is learned over time with practice, supported and reinforced by commitment and perseverance, and ideally, professional help.

Why is it so difficult? In order to begin to observe your thinking, you must slow down, quiet the noise and distraction, and listen to yourself. Part of the difficulty, therefore, lies in shifting one’s focus inward, and being willing to go against the grain of the dominant culture that values speed, productivity, constant stimulation, acquisitiveness, and conformity. Lawyer culture, in particular, emphasizes devoting precious hours to tangible productivity.

The other part of the difficulty lies in the nature of our thoughts and thinking. When not fully engaged in concentrated mental activity, or in a meditation practice, our minds usually roll along in subliminal, rapidly shifting, fragmented and unformulated thoughts, assumptions, opinions, wishes, memories, plans, often with attached feelings, much of which we are quite unaware of within nano-seconds of their occurrence, if at all. They are reactive to all forms of stimulation, may be habitual, and may represent components of defenses against unresolved painful emotional experiences. In addition, thoughts that seem particularly resistant to our efforts to change may be rooted in deep-seated false beliefs that were formed early, perhaps even at a pre-verbal stage of development.

In addition, becoming an observer of your thoughts eventually leads to also observing your behavior, augmenting the process of self-discovery that inevitably contains the good, the bad and the ugly, and sooner or later, a closer encounter with your own vulnerability. So, besides moving away from cultural norms, you risk seeing yourself through a wider angle lens. But the ensuing awareness and acceptance of your thoughts, feelings and beliefs form the springboard for volitional change, and the opportunity to lose the depression and feel more alive.

Here are steps you can take to become a better observer and manager of your thoughts:

  • Prime the pump by holding the intention to observe your thinking with objective interest and without judgment. This helps to summon, mobilize and focus new energies.
  • Journal. Frequently. The process of formulating unedited thoughts and feelings into more or less coherent words and sentences is clearly consciousness raising.
  • Tell it to someone. Speak your thoughts and feelings to a skilled and trusted therapist (or friend, or clergyperson) who functions as a sounding board, a source of feedback and perspective, an asker of questions you might not think to ask yourself. Scheduling regular appointments is one way to create a time and space for you.
  • Begin a daily spiritual practice, i.e., something that helps you slow down and listen to yourself. This may be a walk on the beach or stroll in the woods, attending church or temple or a good 12-step meeting, meditation (alone and/or in a group), listening closely to beautiful music or visiting an art museum, reading poetry or spiritually inspiring literature, journaling, drawing, or other solitary creative activity, etc.
  • Tag and correct negative thoughts. Substitute a corrected thought that specifies what you want. Reinforce the corrected thoughts with repetition, and don’t get discouraged when they recur; stay the course until they weaken and fade.
  • Identify and visualize what you want. Depression short-circuits thoughts about what you want and what you can do to achieve it. Begin to move toward “the unachievable” in little steps. Dreams can come true one little step at a time.
  • Cultivate self acceptance. “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” (Siddhartha Gautama) When you are feeling down on yourself, identify the reason/thought, e.g., for “I’m too depressed to get anything done,” use this “mantra” to re-focus yourself: “Even though I feel so depressed, I deeply and profoundly love and accept myself.” Say it repeatedly until you feel it. Modify it to suit other forms of perceived personal failings or troublesome feelings. (Notice that working this thought effectively demonstrates how positive thoughts generate positive feelings.)

Loving, compassionate self-acceptance is a condition for change and for beating depression.

Changing your patterns, especially well-established thought patterns, is challenging. Meeting that challenge means taking responsibility for your own well-being and is the antithesis of depression because it is proactive, empowering, and enlivening. Changing your thinking is a powerful strategy. Does depression ever gradually or spontaneously remit without your active participation? Yes. Agreeable external events may occur that restore confidence, a sense of personal worth, raise expectations, or inspire new positive thinking and behaviors. However, passive waiting for “things to get better” is much more likely to result in more of the same, i.e., continuing or worsening depression. When you take charge of your own journey and take charge of your thinking, expect to feel more alive. Depression and aliveness are mutually exclusive states.

Next time: What Do You Want?

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