A Mindful Approach to Depressive Thought Patterns

Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Eisendrath, on how you can dramatically improve your quality of life by changing how you relate to your thoughts and feelings.

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There are certain thoughts that are common to individuals with depression. These negative thoughts can be considered symptoms of depression. For any one individual, there are a host of thoughts that make up their script of negativity. 

You may notice that certain thoughts are typical for you when you become depressed. These thoughts form your depressive signature. They represent your symptom pattern just as much as early awakening, loss of appetite, or loss of enjoying activities you previously enjoyed can be part of your particular depressive pattern. 

How Mindfulness Helps with Depressive Thoughts

Several components of mindfulness play a particular role in helping to heal depression. First is the mindfulness focus of being in the present moment. When we are focused on the present, we have less bandwidth available to ruminate about past failures or future catastrophes. 

Another feature of mindfulness that allows you to cope with depression is decentering. Decentering allows you to gain distance from depressive thoughts and feelings.  

In order to decenter from depressive thoughts it’s helpful to make a list of the top ten most common thoughts that occur when you are depressed. It may be useful to include on your list thoughts that you tend to believe very strongly when you are depressed, and that you don’t believe as strongly when you’re feeling better. If you can identify these thoughts, you will be able to decenter from them more easily, because you know they are symptoms of your depression rather than immutable facts.

Paradoxically, thoughts that we most firmly believe are often the least likely to be true. For example, many depressed people hold on tightly to beliefs such as “I am defective,” “I am unlovable,” “I will never be successful,” or “The world is doomed to disaster.” These types of thoughts are cognitive symptoms that occur as commonly in depression as a fever occurs as a symptom of an infection. 

Although people suffering from depression tend to believe these negative thoughts to be true, these thoughts are just as much part of the phenomenon of depression as bodily symptoms, such as a change of appetite or sleep pattern.

How to Test Whether Your Thoughts are Facts:

One way of testing whether a thought is a fact or a symptom of depression is to do a two-step experiment: 

  1. If you temporarily see that thought as a fact, does it lead to healing and peace or pain and suffering? If you are having a thought that leads to worsened depression, that is a good clue that it is related to the depression itself and is not an actual fact. You do not have to ask anyone else, just yourself, “How do I feel after thinking the thought?” 
  2. If you have trouble letting go of the idea that your thought is not in fact true, that is because you are having trouble seeing it as just a thought. Another way to investigate whether a thought is true is to inquire if the thought often repeats. If so, that is another good clue that it is part of a story you’ve constructed. Once you recognize this, it’s amazing how its power diminishes. It tends to lose its hold over you. 

Loosening the Grip of Self-Judgement

Depression tends to cause cascades of negative thoughts. Using mindfulness and observing that your mind is generating these thoughts allows you to start changing your relationship to them. For example, when feeling like a failure, you might say, “There’s that failure type of thought again,” and in that way be able to let it go or lessen its grip. 

In one instance a woman described feeling depressed after being fired from a job after several years because she was frequently argumentative. In fact, in the mindfulness class she was often argumentative as well. She was encouraged to observe her argumentative thoughts in her meditation and to try letting them go and noticing how she felt. When she did so, she noticed she felt very vulnerable. She realized this perceived vulnerability was related to some past events in her childhood, but she no longer was as helpless as she had been as a child. She gradually was able to loosen up her argumentative style and stay more rooted in the present moment.

MBCT-based programs have been scientifically proven in a National Institute of Health study to bring relief to chronic sufferers of depression by helping them realize that their thoughts are not their reality.

Excerpted from the book When Antidepressants Aren’t Enough. Copyright ©2019 by Stuart Eisendrath. Printed with permission from New World Library.