Mike, who has been depressed for the last two years, walks down a road. At an intersection he meets an acquaintance, Victoria, whom he wouldn’t mind getting to know better. Mike asks Victoria if she would like to get a coffee sometime. Victoria thinks about it but says she is quite busy right now, but perhaps in a few weeks’ time.
Here Mike has a choice, one of many important daily micro-choices, which combined constitute how we feel in life.
He can choose to see the response as a total rejection. For many depressed people this is the automatic choice, in other words it is not a choice at all, it just happens by itself. This is a total rejection of Mike as a person; Victoria just doesn’t like Mike. No one likes Mike, and no one ever will. It is impossible, because Mike is an inept, uninteresting, unattractive and unintelligent person. He should just give up, go home and hide under his blankets. The dark curtain falls once again over Mike’s soul, and he sends a text message that he is sick, and has to skip basketball practice. Instead, he goes home.
Mike stops his own automatic thought process, by for example hammering on a mental gong, which reverberates loudly inside his head. This is a well-rehearsed signal to stop automatic thoughts, and push them onto a new track. He has practiced this for a few months now, and is getting better and better at intervening against his own automatic thoughts. What Mike does now is ask himself if there are other ways to interpret the response he just received. Is it possible that it can be interpreted literally, that the person wants to meet him but does not have time until a few weeks from now? How would other people interpret this, like Mike’s almost irritatingly positive cousin? He would definitely not have interpreted this as rejection. Mike decides to interpret the response in the best light, and to continue with basketball training with a slight feeling of pride. He did it again – he stopped the negative automatic thoughts.
So easy, and so difficult, it can be to grasp happiness using the help of techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). There is an enormous difference between depressions among individuals, and there is no single technique that will help absolutely everybody. But as I see it, techniques from CBT can be a key component of any healing process, and these techniques can also help those who are not depressed. It is not only depressed people who suffer from automatic thoughts; thoughts that lead to automatic emotional reactions or behavior. In fact, pretty much everybody has these.
Thoughts take the form of electrochemical impulses that run along neurons – complex networks of nerve cells in the brain. When we think a thought many times, like when learning to ride a bicycle, these neurons create a highway in the brain, paths that are easier to follow because the neurons here have greater capacity. This is what is known as learning. After a while, we don’t even need to apply effort when thinking the thought, or performing the task, as it happens by itself. Just like we no longer need to concentrate when riding a bike – or like when we react automatically and irrationally to something that happens.
Depressed people will often have many of these mechanisms: somebody says something, or something happens, which is then negatively interpreted and results in an oversized effect. For example an outburst of rage, or a strong feeling of defeat, over something which others would find trivial. The depressed person acknowledges that he or she over-reacts to the situation, and becomes ashamed and more depressed as a result. Such mechanisms are thus self-reinforcing. Our lives are much better without them.
What we need to do is break these automatic thoughts and reactions. You must unlearn what you have learned. The first step in achieving this is to stop the automatic processes as early on as possible, preferably before they even get started. This is where the gong comes in. Each time you suspect that a negative thought process is getting started, you can stop it with a mental signal. An inner gong is one example, or you can yell ‘Stop!’ in your head, or you can use a mantra such as “just a wait a second…,” which you recite to yourself. Afterwards, once you have stopped the negative process, you can begin to pose critical questions to yourself, such as: “Are there any other ways to see this?” Or: “Do I really know what she thinks about me?” Or: “Am I over-reacting here?” Really interrogate your own automatic thoughts. Ask them so many critical questions that they finally give in. This is actually easier than one would think, because automatic thoughts are often built upon a paper-thin or altogether non-existent logic. They simply are untrue, and cannot withstand scrutiny when exposed to the light of day. All that is necessary to eject them is a few well-formulated questions.
This may require some practice, and can be difficult in the beginning. But you can be certain that it will get easier with time. For each time you succeed with these techniques, even partially, it will become easier for you the next time you end up in a similar situation. As part of the process you will also become more familiar with yourself – how you actually work. You might end up with a number of ‘Aha!’ experiences. I suggest that many things might become clearer to you, why things ended up the way they did, and what you can do about it.
Cognitive techniques require a little space to be properly explained. I would recommend that you read up on the topic, and buy a few books. Or contact a therapist specializing in CBT, whom can help you.
If you suffer from negative thoughts and reactions, this might be the best investment you ever make.