Join us for Head to Toe's first mental health challenge - together, let's make sure you face each day empowered and positive, with minimal anxiety and sadness.
Everyday I see patients who report symptoms of depression: sadness, low self-esteem, low drive and lack of motivation. When asked for triggers - life events or situations that are providing a reasonable explanation for these symptoms, many patients can not point to anything of significance.
There are several possibilities here, but the one I would like to draw your attention to is the role you play in breeding your own depression. More specifically, how you bully yourself with nothing but your own thoughts.
Imagine this: after standing in a long line at Starbucks, you finally grab your specialty coffee and go. Halfway down the block and 2 sips later, you realize the barista got your order wrong. Now stop right there - what thought was just triggered?
For some people, the thought would be a few choice words and they would go on about their day. For others, the thoughts become much more cynical:
Or course they got MY order wrong.
Nothing ever goes right for me.
No one cares about what I want.
The simple thought nothing ever goes right for me becomes a breeding ground for more negativity. From a simple mistake on your coffee order, your brain begins searching for more evidence to further prove this point - and I missed the train this morning, and my boss isn't going to like the report I did. That the one negative thought about mistaken coffee starts as a snowflake, escalates into a snowball, and before you know it, develops into a complete avalanche of negative, self-deprecating thoughts. My question for you then is this: how can you possibly be in a positive mood if so many negative thoughts are running through your head?
What I have learned through counseling, is that the vast majority of people are either not at all aware of their negative thoughts, or have a very distorted view of the frequency and degree of negativity that they think.
Gaining awareness of this thinking problem is a key step to correcting it. This blog is the first step in a blog series of how changing your thinking, and thus, restructuring your cognitive habits, can lead to improved mood.
Why is this important?
Think about the Starbucks example, if the thoughts going through your mind range from negativity about being neglecting at Starbucks, to failing at work - where else do the thoughts go? If the avalanche continues, it is very likely that the negative thoughts will spread to misperceptions about your abilities, skills, accomplishments and experiences.
Now stop here for a second. With all of these negative thoughts in your head, what kind of mood are you likely to be in? You are probably not light-hearted and laughing. It is much more likely that you literally, thought yourself into sadness.
Consider an additional outcome. After thinking these negative thoughts, you get back to work. You sit at your desk, frustration, sad and feeling defeated (after all, you did just tell yourself everything in your life is awful!) How motivated will you be to get your work done? Now, your behavior will be affected. You might have a lack of motivation, lack of drive. You tell yourself that you don't really care about getting this project completed. At the end of the day, when you realize you haven't accomplished anything, how are you left feeling?
This cycle of thoughts - feelings and behaviors looks like this diagram below. The field of cognitive behavioral therapy argues that this cyclic pattern can breed anxiety and depression.
First things first: How to become more aware of your automatic negative thoughts
The Mental Health Challenge: Thought Logging
The idea here is to look for patterns in your thinking. The best way to do this is to actually write your thoughts down. Whenever you find yourself in a negative mood: angry, sad, frustrated, feeling guilty etc, make a note of what you were doing, what emotion was triggered, and the corresponding thought.
Behavior: Meeting at work to go over presentation; Received negative feedback from boss
Emotion: Frustration, sadness, disappointment
Thought: I can't do anything right; I'm never going to get ahead in my career
Behavior: Walking back to my desk from the bathroom; Coworkers talking in whispers.
Thought: Why are they talking about me? They noticed my pants are a little too tight.
Can't remember to log your thoughts when you are in a bad mood? Set an alarm on your phone for lunch time, and right before bed. Try to log as many moods and corresponding thoughts as you can remember. Hopefully, the more you do this, the easier it becomes to remember in the moment throughout the day.
Journaling is a great mental health exercise because of its inherent, cathartic nature. It can also be used to make thought logging a little easier. If you find yourself in a negative mood but are struggling to identify that one particular triggering thought, try journaling. Without putting too much pressure on yourself, just try writing about the event, your thoughts and feelings in that moment. Just let the words flow. Don't know what to write in the moment? Start writing: I don't know what to write, I am doing this as a mental health challenge exercise. Let your natural stream of consciousness take over from there.
When you are finished, go back and see if you can pick out the negative thoughts.
You have your log so now what?
After a few days of logging, start to look for triggers.
Are there any triggers that are repetitive that seem to come up numerous times? One client recently realized through thought logging that her mother's overall pessimistic mood was a significant trigger for her own negative self-deprecating thoughts.
Are the triggers situational, or environmental? Are the majority of your automatic negative thoughts occurring at the workplace, or during your commute?
Look for thought patterns
Automatic negative thoughts are referred to as cognitive distortions. People tend to think in typical cognitive distortions, or patterns. What themes can you pick up on? Here are some of the more common:
Catastrophizing, or blowing things out of proportion
Black or White (or all or nothing thinking), thinking that things can only possibly be this way or that way, with no additional options or room for compromise
What if Thinking, or thinking through all of the possible outcomes: What if this happens... What if that happens
Mind Reading, or Personalization, assuming you know, for a fact, what other people are thinking.
"Shoulds" or "Musts", I should be more successful by now
Fortune Telling or predicting the future
Can you label each negative thought with its correct distortion name? The key here is to increase self-awareness. Continue logging, recording your negative thoughts and labeling the type of distortion each is until you are aware in the moment that it is happening.
Behavior: You receive bad feedback on a group project.
Thought: I'm never going to get ahead.
Label: Fortune-Telling: Based on the feedback you received about your work, you are predicting that you will never get ahead in your career.
I'm interested in hearing what you have become more self-aware of. Are you realizing how negative your thoughts can? Are you surprised at how frequently these types of thoughts pop up? Does the presence of repetitive triggers shock you?
Share your findings and reactions to the though logging exercise at #MentalHealthChallenge. Once you develop awareness of your automatic negative thought process, you may already see a decrease in the frequency of its occurrence. In fact, being aware that some of your thoughts are simply thoughts or exaggerates and not fact may already lead to slight improvements in mood! Next blog post we'll talk about how to challenge the negative thought so it lessens its impact on your emotional state that you don't believe it's negative message!