Depression and Positive Thinking : Where it helps…where it doesn’t

There are not many people who have not had their lives touched by depression at some point and everybody knows somebody who has had it or is suffering from it. One famous psychologist once described it as ‘ the cancer of mental health’ and never a truer word was spoken. Take a look at these general statistics :

Recent studies suggest roughly seven of every one hundred people suffer from depression after age 18 at some point in their lives.

 As many as one in 33 children and one in eight adolescents have clinical depression. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24.

 Most people diagnosed with major depression receive a diagnosis between their late twenties to mid-thirties.

 About six million people are affected by late life depression, but only 10% ever receive treatment.

 For every one man that develops depression, two women will, regardless of racial or ethnic background or economic status.

More than half of all people caring for an older relative show clinically significant depressive symptoms.

By the year 2020, depression will be the 2nd most common health problem in the world.

The figures above do not include those who are unaware of the fact that they are suffering from depression and those who choose not to, or cannot, seek treatment for whatever reason. Given this fact, the statistics are sure to be much, much higher. The general treatment administered by GP’s for depression can range from referral to a therapist, lifestyle changes, anti-depressant medication or a combination of these. While each have their merits, many therapists believe that depression and anxiety are more a result of distorted thought patterns than chemical imbalances or genetics (though both are known to play a role). Change the way you think, change the way you feel is the main argument. Something that I tend to fully agree with but it is not valid in all situations.

Pessimistic thinking does not cause depression, but it appears to be easier to become depressed if you tend to view the world with considerable pessimism. After all, pessimism is a tendency to think that things won’t work out as you wish, that you won’t get what you want. Pessimism feeds the negative cognitive distortions and self-talk. On the other hand, optimism appears to create some protection from depression.

Hopelessness is a central feature of depression, along with helplessness. If you view your world as bad, filled with problems, and don’t think you can do anything about the problems, you will feel helpless. If you don’t believe your life will improve, if you think the future is bleak, then you will begin to feel hopeless. Pessimism encourages these negative assessments of your life. Optimism prevents you from reaching those conclusions. In fact, psychologists have researched ways to work with patients on how to learn to be more optimistic, as a way of fighting depression.

So, how can a depressed person have their negative thoughts turned into positive ones and get motivated to take charge and help their issues? Negative and unhelpful thoughts must firstly be acknowledged and logged. Those thoughts can then be evaluated and graded in terms of how useful, true or constructive they are. Questions such as “Is it possible that this way of thinking is not 100% true or realistic? Are you discounting the positive and only focusing on the negative?” . Where negativity is challenged, it will provide reflection on the validity of what the person is saying to themselves. If it’s not true or realistic; “Why not? And then why would you think that way?”.

Crucially, it is also important to come up with a positive and realistic thought, such as; “Well, it’s not completely useless, there is a possibility something good could come out of it” which would be a good start to recognise there are solutions and rewards if one takes a logical and objective approach to a situation. Motivation can be enhanced by asking a depressed person what they would be doing tomorrow or next week if they were not feeling depressed. This can make the mind shift forward and make them think of pleasant things, which can then be incorporated and worked with as a goal. Small steps and stages are also good for keeping motivation going, by breaking down tasks and doing it little by little. Reward and praise for any progress no matter how small will also make sure steady progress is made.

However, life isn’t always as simple as this and many people become confused as to whether thoughts cause emotions or emotions cause thoughts. Additionally, anyone who has suffered from deep depression will tell you that no amount of positive thinking makes the depression go away. Positive thinking seems to help in certain situations – when depression is mild, when we are feeling a bit down, when we were previously unaware that negative thinking could make us feel bad etc. Many suffering from severe depression find the idea that positive thinking could cure them insulting. They know that their condition is much more complex than that and it is. This doesn’t mean that there is no place for positive thinking, but there are times when we need to allow our emotions to play out. This is particularly the case where our depression or low mood is caused by an external event. In this case, it is sometimes helpful to feel the deepest side of despair and emotion to be able to emerge on the other side with a chance of recovery.

3 Thoughts

  1. Very informative and the stats just floor you, add in those with PTSD, a co morbid,partner and those numbers spike.

    The two to one ratio for depression is the same for PTSD, women get PTSD at double the rate for men.

    I find it interesting how our psychological cabal honor emotions and thought with such power.

    Why do we give so much power or weight to an emotion. As far as I can tell, you can not describe me as an emotion at any one moment. Emotions seem fleeting but we think they define us at times. Control us.

    I can feel any emotion, focus on my breath, let it go, empty the kind and be here, present.

    All that stuff thought important, have now faded.

    They seem to have lost power in my model.

    As far as the positive thoughts and negative. Alex Lickerman a physician and chanting Buddhist details many studies about positve thought. In one experiment at an old folks home, a plant was given to all patients on two floors. Mine floor the nurses cared for the plants. On the other floor the patients were given responsibility for the pants care.

    18 months later 50% more patients were alive in the floor who cared for the plants.

    In Minnesota 178 nuns were studied over their lifetime at the convent. They had the same diet, life style and healthcare thought their lives. At intake they were classified on a scale from very positive to depressed.

    They very positive had 60% more of them alive at 80.

    That is just a positve attitude. The ability to let go, empty the mind will make emotion, judgment and thought fade, helplessly.

    Thoughts are air without action.

  2. Informative post. Some of what you said in your blog post reminded me of CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy. With CBT, the idea is to help a client understand how their thoughts and feelings influence their behavior. And as you said, when you change the way you think or feel, your behavior will most likely change as well. Indeed, sometimes toxic or unhealthy thoughts are the source of maladaptive behavior and the sooner we recognize this, the sooner one can intervene and make a change. However, like you said, altering thoughts and feelings is not always realistic for some clients.

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