Clinical Psychologist

Sydney CBD

Challenging Unhelpful Thinking for Depression

We’ve all felt down at some point in our lives, and for some of us that feeling has been more intense and regular. Many of us in Australia, in fact, one in six, will experience depression in our lifetime. Depression is so widespread it has been referred to as the common cold of psychological problems (Seligman,1975).

Depression can impact our lives in a number of different ways, including our work and relationships. While no one really knows the exact cause of depression, it has been linked to a number of factors including our genes, our history and life events. The onset of depression is likely to be different for all of us.

In an attempt to alleviate some of the symptoms of depression a number of pharmaceutical and psychological treatments have been developed over the years. Psychologists tend to use a variety of psychological therapies for depression depending on the client’s individual needs and the psychologist’s approach.

In recent years cognitive-behavioural therapy has been widely used in a variety of settings. One aspect of cognitive-behavioural therapy is being able to identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts. This is important because our thoughts affect how we feel.

Most of our thoughts are automatic and beyond our awareness. This is sometimes useful in terms of day to day functioning but it can be problematic if the thoughts are negative. Negative automatic thoughts can impact our mood and contribute to depression or anxiety.

There are several steps involved in challenging depressive automatic thoughts.

1. The first step is to identify negative automatic thoughts associated with our depressed mood.

We do this by slowing down our thinking and bringing our unhelpful thoughts into our awareness. Ask yourself “what am I thinking right now” or “what’s depressing me”. People find it helpful to write these down.

Examples of unhelpful thoughts:

I only got a credit instead of a distinction in my course.
I’m not good enough.
I’m a bad person.

2. Ask yourself ‘Is this thought helpful? Is there an alternative way to look at it?

Sometimes a thought is unrealistic or is associated with a cognitive distortion that needs to be identified. Sometimes a thought might technically be accurate but you’re being too harsh on yourself.

3. Become aware of any cognitive distortions and challenge them.

(a) A cognitive distortion is when there is an error in our thinking. For example someone may look at a complex situation in simple black and white terms rather than understanding the whole picture. It may be something like ‘I’m right, he’s wrong’. This is also referred to all or nothing thinking.

Sally: ’I’m hopeless at my job’

Sally is actually good at her job and gets better than average performance reviews, but she struggles with one aspect of her job which takes up 15 per cent of her role. In Sally’s mind, if she’s not perfect, she’s hopeless. If Sally could see her situation in shades of grey, instead of black and white, she might feel better about herself.

(b) When we assume we know what will happen in the future, we are jumping to conclusions.

Fred after a date: If I call her within two days, she’ll think I’m desperate and won’t go out with me again’.

Fred is predicting a negative future outcome without any evidence. He actually doesn’t know what his date is thinking and how she’ll react. Fred may be right. On the other hand, she might be thrilled to hear from him the next day. In fact, she might think Fred isn’t that keen if he leaves it too long.

(c) When we think we know what someone else is thinking it’s called mind reading.

Sally: ’That mum thinks I’m a terrible mum’.

Sally is assuming that another mum is negatively evaluating her. However, she doesn’t know what she thinks of her. Perhaps in talking to the other mum, she realises they share similar struggles.

(d) Catastrophising involves blowing things out of proportion.

Sally: ’If I don’t get this project finished, my boss will fire me’.

Sally not only predicts a negative outcome but also one that’s catastrophic rather than balancing the thought out with a more realistic one.

(e) Overgeneralisation is when we think the same thing will happen in every situation just because it’s happened once. We often generalise based on past experience.

Sally: ’I’m not good at job interviews. I’m never going to get a job’.

Sally assumes that because she didn’t get the last two jobs she applied for, she’s not good at interviews and won’t get a job. In reality, she has been given good feedback about the way she comes across in interviews and she has also been offered a job, which she decided not to take because the conditions didn’t suit her.

(f) Filtering is when we only focus on the negatives.

Sally: ’Ted’s really upset with me. This time I’ve really ruined what was a wonderful relationship’.

Sally is focusing on the negative, rather than the positive, despite her and Ted loving each other and having survived many arguments.

(g) Minimising is when we discount the positive.

Sally: ’I look terrible, look at my legs. I don’t know how you can say I look good’.

Sally refuses to hear the compliment, and finds a negative to focus on.

(h) Labelling is when we refer to ourselves in a disparaging or belittling way such as ‘I’m a loser’, ‘I’m an idiot’, ‘I’m pathetic’. We do this when we generalise about something we’re not good at, or something we didn’t do well, into who we are as a person. We define ourselves by that label instead of just noticing that we’d like to improve a particular aspect of ourselves.

4. Challenge unhelpful thinking by identifying evidence for and against the thought.

No one likes me.

Evidence that supports that thought might be:

Ted doesn’t like me, and I don’t get on with my sister-in-law.
Kylie doesn’t speak to me anymore.

Evidence against this thought might be:

I had five people call me for my birthday.
My work colleagues are always asking me out for drinks.

5. Come up with a more helpful balanced thought.

While I don’t get on with a couple of people, I do have a few people in my life who I get on with, who are there for me and who often think of me.

A couple of limitations about challenging unhelpful thoughts for depression

Just because we can challenge a thought, it doesn’t mean that our feeling will suddenly change. The feeling will only change once we actually believe the alternative thought. The shift can take some time because our negative automatic thoughts have been with us for a long time and will need challenging on a regular basis.

Challenging negative depressing thoughts is not easy when we’re feeling extremely distressed because our emotions are too intense. When we’re distressed, we first need to regulate our emotions until we feel calm enough to challenge the unhelpful thought.

Remember, there is help for depression. Contact a health care professional for help. Or for crisis support call Lifeline on 13 1114 in Australia.

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Maria Scoda is a psychologist in Sydney CBD.

This post is for informational purposes. It does not address people’s individual circumstances or needs and it is not a substitute for professional help. Please see a health care professional if you are struggling. External links have been provided for convenience. They are created and maintained by other organisations and I cannot control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this outside information.

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