When my great uncle died suddenly (one day he had a headache, the next day he was gone), my aunt struggled to cope. Upon visiting her GP and asking for advice, he immediately wrote her out a prescription for an anti-depressant. No questions asked, no recommendation for therapy. A few months later, her behavior became erratic (a side effect of the medication), compelling my mother to tell her to stop taking it and to start accepting that her husband was gone. My aunt finally allowed herself to grieve, and got her life back on track.
I am not going to get into a heated debate about “Big Pharma” and the pros and cons of drug therapy. Suffice to say, in my opinion, medication can be used in extreme cases (when a person simply cannot function, or is a danger to self and/or others), but in conjunction with other forms of psychological therapy.
When people write into our site asking for help with their depression, our volunteer counselor slices through the person’s letter like a Mr. Miyagi and his bonsai trees: He roots out and snips away the unhealthy thought patterns and encourages the growth of new, healthier thoughts. This compelled me to look at the data we have collected for our Depression Test and search for the most common thinking patterns in depressed people. Here’s what our research has uncovered:
Depressed people attribute failure to internal causes.
No matter what goes wrong in their life (a failed relationship, being laid off at work, etc.), they automatically blame themselves – even when the failure isn’t their fault. Moreover, depressed people attribute failure to internal causes – a lack of intelligence, inner strength, knowledge, skill, or other perceived ineptitudes. While I condone accountability and taking responsibility for one’s mistakes and failures, when you’re depressed you’re more likely to take accountability to an extreme. This leads to low self-esteem, low sense of self-worth, and a sense of helplessness.
Depressed people tend to fall into catastrophic thinking patterns.
“My boss wants to see me in her office. I must be in trouble.”
“My partner wants to talk to me when I get home. He’s probably going to break up with me.”
Where one person sees a mistake, the depressed person sees a disaster. Where one person sees a molehill, the depressed person sees a mountain. Rather than assuming the best, people who are depressed find themselves reaching into the darkest recesses of their mind and envisioning the worst possible outcome to a situation. Any error, argument, or obstacle suddenly takes on a life of its own, going from a minor blip to a major calamity, making them appear all the more challenging to resolve and overcome.
Depressed people suffer from attentional bias.
Imagine walking into a room filled with one hundred people you know and love. Ninety-nine of them step forward and detail how much they adore you and praise you for your success. The 100th person peers at you from across the room, walking ominously towards you. He or she then proceeds to tell you that you’re an awful human being. You’re pathetic, a failure, and a useless waste of space. How would you respond? Ideally, you’d dismiss everything that 100th person said and focus on all the wonderful, positive things others have said about you. When you’re depressed, however, you’re more likely to focus excessively on or be more sensitive to the negative comments, despite evidence to the contrary.
Depressed people tend to be extreme perfectionists.
Perfectionism and contentment rarely go hand in hand. Depressed people take perfectionism to an extreme, setting unreasonably high standards for themselves. When they inevitably fail to live up to them, they become even more upset and depressed, creating an ugly, vicious cycle. They also tend to dwell on disappointments and failures, seeing any goal or challenge they take on as an all-or-nothing endeavor: “I need to this well, I need to succeed, or I will never be happy.” Essentially, doing their best simply isn’t enough.
Depressed people live in fear of other people’s judgment.
Every day on the way to work I hear the same commercial on the radio: Two colleagues are discussing the fact that one of their co-workers has taken yet another month off from work. “Why?” one will mockingly ask. “Has she had another one of her ‘breakdowns’?” It’s an attempt to reduce the stigma of seeking professional help, by encouraging people to see mental disorders are an “illness,” like the flu. I can’t say that I am entirely pleased with the label, but I can appreciate the well-meaning intention.
People who are depressed place a great deal of stock in other people’s opinion, and worry excessively about what friends, colleagues and loved ones think of them. Any mistake or failure is evaluated in the context of, “What will other people think?” It’s this fear of being judged by others that keeps depressed people in a negative thinking pattern, and discourages some from seeking help even though they really need it.
Depression is a mental health problem that I take very seriously, having known several people who have struggled with it, and having dealt with it myself. I encourage anyone who is dealing with this issue to seek professional help. There are many forms of therapy that have great success rates with depression. If you go to the dentist when you have cavity, a doctor when you have a broken bone, and a mechanic when there’s a problem with your car, do yourself the courtesy of getting help with mental health issues. Psychological health is true wealth.