I’m feeling so crummy these days. When I’m at my lowest, the negative thoughts start to take over and I feel like a goner. Any suggestions? I’m stuck at home with a disabled spouse.
I’ll suggest it’s more useful to see how the negative thoughts trigger the emotions. While we can’t directly or easily control our emotions, we can get a better handle on our thoughts. Also, while emotions by their definition can never be wrong, thoughts generally either true or false. They can be put to the test.
What you can do is start to look for your own most depressing thoughts (maybe something like, “this life stinks”), and try to see how it is distorted (see below). Then you can practice taking a more rational assessment (perhaps, “this life is hard, not stinky, and it is meaningful and principled, and furthermore, I still have a good measure of control over the quality of my days”), which will begin to improve your mood. It takes some concerted practice.
You can try reading Feeling Good and The Feeling Good Workbook by David Burns for more on all this. As a preview, here are what he might consider the “Top Ten” cognitive distortions. It would be a strange individual who never engaged in a few of these:
1. All or Nothing Thinking
This refers to the tendency to evaluate personal qualities or situations in extreme, black or white categories. For example, before you developed chronic pain, you used to play baseball on the weekends. Now you find yourself thinking, “If I can’t play baseball, I can’t enjoy the sport anymore.” There is an apparent advantage to thinking in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms. It is more predictable and creates the feeling that there is order in the world around you. This, in turn, should give you an edge to controlling your world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Uncertainty is all that we have. Living comfortably with uncertainty is possible, but it takes time to master.
This refers to the tendency to see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. Given the preceding example, you might respond, I’ll never be able to enjoy anything anymore. Misery does love company, but globalizing misfortune in this way creates an exaggerated sense of rejection and loneliness.
3. Mental Filtering
This refers to the tendency to dwell exclusively on a single negative event, and thus to perceive the whole situation as negative. For example, you are preparing brunch for some friends and discover that you do not have an essential ingredient to make a dish you were planning to include. All you can think about is how the whole brunch will be ruined. It gives you indigestion.
4. Discounting the Positive
This refers to the tendency to take neutral or even positive experiences and turn them into negative ones. For example, a friend comes over to visit and tells you that you look great. Your immediate though is this: I don’t feel great. She doesn’t understand. Maybe not, but try a simple thank you first before you check it out. Maybe you don’t look as bad as you feel!
5. Jumping to Conclusions
This refers specifically to jumping to a negative conclusion that is not justified by the facts of the situation. Two types of jumping to conclusions are mind reading and fortune telling.
5-A. Mind Reading
You assume you know why someone else does what he or she does, and you don’t bother to check it out. For example, you pass a coworker in the hallway and say Hi! He doesn’t respond. You think He must be upset with me. What did I do wrong? When you check it out, you find that the coworker was preoccupied about a sick child he had just left at home.
5-B. Fortune Telling
You know that things will turn out badly. Given your bad luck, you predict it as an already established fact. For example, you wake up with a headache. You say, Now my whole day is ruined. I had so much to do and I’ll never get it all done.
6. Magnification and Minimization
In magnification, you exaggerate the importance of a negative event or mistake. If, for example, you experience a flare-up in your pain, you find yourself saying, I can’t stand this! I can’t take this anymore. As a matter of fact, however, you can. You may not want to, and that’s okay, but you can take it. In minimization, conversely, you take positive personal qualities or events and deny them their importance. For example, a family member comments on how nice it is to see you at a family outing, and you reply, A lot of good it does if I can’t participate in the activities.
7. Emotional Reasoning
This refers to taking your emotions as evidence for the truth. If you feel that something is right, then it must be true. For example, you find yourself thinking, I feel useless. [Therefore] I am useless.
This refers specifically to identifying a mistake or negative quality and then describing an entire situation or individual in terms of that quality. For example, instead of seeing yourself as an individual who has a pain problem, you find yourself saying, I’m defective, imperfect, and good for nothing.
This refers to taking responsibility for a negative event even when the circumstances are beyond your control. For example, you and your spouse go out to eat at a fancy restaurant, but the service and food are poor. You find yourself feeling responsible for making a bad choice and ruining your evening together.
These are attempts to motivate (or browbeat) yourself by saying things like, I should know better, I should go there, or I must do that. Such statements set you up for feeling resentful and pressured. They also imply that you are complying with an external authority.