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Destructive Thinking: Can You Stop the Cycle?

Identifying Your Cognitive Distortions

At the onset of depression there begins a chain reaction of negative cognitives - almost like a single spark that begins a bonfire - triggering an explosion of negative thoughts. When people are depressed, such negative thoughts occur literally hundreds of times a day, each time generating more misery and pessimism. And, like the bonfire, once started, the depressed person may actually throw on additional "logs" to keep it ablaze. The repeated, often almost continuous, negative thoughts keep depression alive and interfere with emotional healing.

The hopeful side, however, is that it is entirely possible to learn some systematic techniques that can effectively stop the destruction. The first step in this process is identifying the types of cognitive distortions:

  • Negative Predictions: This is the tendency to make highly negative, pessimistic predictions about the future, for which there is no evidence, and which result in increased despair and hopelessness. Example: A depressed woman thinks, "I've been depressed for months. I'm never going to get over this... nothing will ever get me out of this depression."
  • All-or-None Thinking: This is the tendency to jump to broad, over-generalized conclusions about yourself or reality. Example: A recently divorced man spends a Friday night alone at home. He hoped a friend would call, but none did. He concludes, "No one cares about me." The reality may be that he does in fact have friends and family who care a lot about him, but they simply did not call this night.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: This is the tendency to conclude the worst in the absence of substantial evidence. Example: A woman applies for a job and is told, "We will call you on Monday if you got the job." By Monday noon she has not heard, and she concludes, "I know I didn?t get the job."
  • Tunnel Vision: This is the common tendency when one is depressed to focus selectively on the negative details, to dwell on them and tune out positive aspects of a situation or yourself. Example: A middle-aged man walks by a mirror and notices his pot belly. He thinks, "I'm disgusting. No wonder women aren?t interested in me." The fact that he is somewhat overweight may be accurate, but at that moment in front of the mirror this is what he focuses on exclusively. He sees himself as disgusting. It may very well be that he is a kind and sensitive man.
  • Personalizing: This is the tendency to assume that if something is wrong, you are at fault; an assumption that may not be accurate. Example: As a man comes to work, he says "hello" to his boss. The boss nods his head but says nothing. The man concludes, "Boy, he must be mad at me." This may or may not be an accurate conclusion. If he does not check it out with his boss, he may worry needlessly. Many alternative explanations are possible. The point is that we cannot read each other's minds, and there is a strong tendency for people who feel depressed to overreact and personalize - especially when they fear criticism or rejection.
  • "Should" Statements: This tendency insists that things should be a certain way, and can be directed toward yourself, toward others, or toward reality. "Should" statements always have the effect of intensifying painful emotions; they never reduce misery or change situations. Example: "He shouldn't have left me. I was so good to him. I gave my whole life to him!"

Each of these cognitive distortions shares two things in common with the others: they distort in some way one's view of reality (resulting in a loss of perspective, and extremely negative and pessimistic views of oneself, current situations and the future), and each cognitive distortion has the effect of intensifying emotional pain. If unrecognized and unchallenged, such distortions in thinking will result in an ongoing destructive depressive process. It is very important to interrupt this process. The first step is to recognize such distortions as they occur. There is realistic hope.

Adapted from You Can Beat Depression:
A Guide to Prevention and Recovery (Fourth Edition), by Dr. John Preston
Available at online and local bookstores or directly from Impact Publishers, Inc.
PO Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016
Phone 1-800-246-7228.

Page last modified/reviewed on January 11, 2012