Depression: How to Challenge the Negative Thoughts

When we have depression, negative thoughts can be both a cause and a result of our mood.

Those negative thoughts feed depression, and in turn it fuels them, filling our head with spiralling fear, anxiety, worries, stress, hopelessness and anger.

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‘Glass half empty’?

Having our heads full of these thoughts and feelings is so much more than being moody, or pessimistic, or a ‘glass half empty sort of person’. It’s not that we choose to take a bleak outlook – in fact, we spend a huge amount of mental energy trying to take a brighter outlook, despite what we’re thinking or how we’re feeling.

Negative thoughts feed other negative thoughts, and they whip themselves up into a frenzied cycle in our heads. So how can we stop the blighters in their tracks? How can we prevent the first negative thought growing and bringing others with it?

Ideally, we’d be able to step back and think calmly, but when our heads are bursting with noise and imaginary arguments, that’s hard to do. There are some smaller things we can do, though.

Try a breathing technique

Press pause. Try to concentrate on slowing down your breathing. Some of the techniques for coping with a panic attack can be very helpful here too. A quick breathing technique that can help to calm our racing brains is to breathe in through your nose to the count of 7, then breathe out through your mouth to the count of 11, and repeat – the 7/11 technique. You can do it anywhere.

Distraction

The negative thoughts swarm into our brain and get worse if we concentrate on them, so we need to distract ourselves from them as quickly as possible. Is there an activity you could get stuck into, whether it’s at home, at work, or anywhere else?

Talking to someone can be a good distraction. We don’t have to talk about how we’re feeling or what we’re thinking (although that can help too – see below) – it’s just another way of taking our minds off those damaging thoughts.

Become a detective

Can you work out where your negative thoughts have come from? What’s triggered them? Can you narrow it down to a specific thing that’s happened, or something that’s coming up? Maybe it’s something you’re afraid of, or something that’s made you angry. If you can identify the cause of that thought or feeling, you might be able to do something about it – and that’s much more helpful than over-thinking it and going over it again and again without taking any action.

Are you tired? Tiredness can give us a warped view of our world. Knowing we’re not to blame for our thoughts, and that something physical is influencing them – like sleep deprivation, or even something like dehydration or hunger – can help to give us some perspective back.

Check the facts. What’s real and what might not be? Could our insecurity about a person, a situation or ourselves be clouding our judgement and making us paranoid? For example, we might see someone looking angry or disgusted, think it’s about us in some way, decide they hate us, and conclude that everyone else hates us too. See how that spiralled? But it’s very possible that we misinterpreted that first person’s expression, and that means the whole chain of thinking is wrong too.

Argue back

Depression bullies us. It finds us alone and assaults us with the kind of thoughts that will make us dance to its tune.

Sometimes we need to consciously run through counter-arguments and remember things we could try doing to shut depression up. This can be difficult and takes practice. It’s as if we have to install some kind of counter-argument software in our brains, feeding us positive thoughts about ourselves.

We can fight back with the facts, or with encouraging self-talk. We can see depression as a third person, who we can refuse to obey.

Talk to someone

Getting the negative thoughts out of our heads can help to liberate us from them. It can help to get another person’s perspective – someone we trust to tell us straight. They can give us a different, clearer interpretation of something and are likely to be kinder to us than we are to ourselves.

If you don’t want to talk about your thoughts, it might help to write them down.

If there’s nobody around and you urgently need to speak to someone, here’s how to get help.

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