I’ve been feeling mildly depressed for the last few days. I’m not sure why, but I’ve been tired, unmotivated, overwhelmed by small things. It could be pregnancy fatigue and hormones, or it could be the baking fail I experienced yesterday (why do I trust Internet recipes, WHY???).
When I get like this I get the urge to buy things. Home appliances, self-care luxuries, shiny electronics. It’s dangerous. I know I’m not alone–I believe much of the stuff we buy is often rooted in a desire to feel better, to fix something that feels wrong inside.
So I thought I would share with you one of my techniques for finding a better mood. It’s rooted in the writings of Dr. David Burns, author of Feeling Good, The Feeling Good Handbook, and the more recent When Panic Attacks, among others. Dr. Burns is a cognitive therapist, and his techniques have been proven through research and clinical trials.
While nothing replaces the power of one-on-one cognitive therapy, when I get down for a few days I find I can usually pull myself out using some of his self-help techniques.
The most basic is the “triple-column system” of writing down your thoughts, identifying the “thinking errors” contained in those thoughts, and then writing a rational response. You really need to write it (I usually do this on a Google Doc–I insert a table that is 3 columns and 20 rows, though I don’t usually use all the rows); just pondering your problems won’t help.
Identifying the thinking errors is key. Here is a list of the ten thinking errors:
- ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING – Also called Black and White Thinking – Thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every” or “never”. For example, if your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure. Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. Nothing is 100%. No one is all bad, or all good, we all have grades.
- OVERGENERALIZATION – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations. For example, you see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat: “She yelled at me. She’s always yelling at me. She must not like me.”
- MENTAL FILTER – Focusing exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of something while ignoring the rest. For example, you selectively hear the one tiny negative thing surrounded by all the HUGE POSITIVE STUFF. Often this includes being associated in negative (”I am so stupid!”), and dissociated in positive (”You have to be pretty smart to do my job”).
- DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE – Continually “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences. The good stuff doesn’t count because the rest of your life is a miserable pile of doo-doo. “That doesn’t count because my life sucks!”
- JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS – Assuming something negative where there is actually no evidence to support it. Two specific subtypes are also identified:
- Mind reading – assuming the intentions of others. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check it out.
- Fortune telling – anticipating that things will turn out badly, you feel convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.
- MAGNIFICATION & MINIMIZATION – Exaggerating negatives and understating positives. Often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negatives understated. There is one subtype of magnification/catastrophizing – focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable: “I can’t stand this.”
- EMOTIONAL REASONING – Making decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality. People who allow themselves to get caught up in emotional reasoning can become completely blinded to the difference between feelings and facts.
- SHOULDING – (Necessity) Must, Can’t thinking. Shoulding is focusing on what you can’t control. For example, you try to enlighten another’s unconscious – they should get it. Concentrating on what you think “should” or ought to be rather than the actual situation you are faced with will simply stress you out. What you choose to do, and then do, will (to some degree, at least) change the world. What you “should” do will just make you miserable.
- LABELLING and MISLABELING – Related to overgeneralization, explaining by naming. Rather than describing the specific behavior, you assign a label to someone or yourself that puts them in absolute and unalterable negative terms. This is a logic level error in that we make a logic leap from behavior/action (”he called me a name…”) to identity (”therefore, he’s a jerk”).
- PERSONALIZATION & BLAME – Burns calls this distortion “the mother of guilt.” Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control. For example, “My son is doing poorly in school. I must be a bad mother…” and “What’s that say about you as a person?” – instead of trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem so that she could be helpful to her child. When another woman’s husband beat her, she told herself, “lf only I were better in bed, he wouldn’t beat me.” Personalization leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy. On the flip side of personalization is blame. Some people blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways that they might be contributing to the problem: “The reason my marriage is so lousy is because my spouse is totally unreasonable.” – instead of investigating their own behavior and beliefs that can be changed.
You might need more information than this, especially when it comes to writing your “Rational Responses”.
But basically the process is like this:
1. At the top of the page, write the emotions you are feeling, and give them percentages. So if you are feeling a little bit sad, it might be Sad 10% or 20%. If you are feeling the saddest you’ve ever felt in your life, it would be Sad 90% or 100%.
2. Create a table with three columns and about 20 rows.
3. In the first column, write the thoughts that are plaguing you. These might be “She hates me”, “Life isn’t fair” or “He should help me with the dishes.” Don’t write feelings here, but rather your thoughts and judgements about yourself and the world.
4. For each thought in column 1, read through the Thinking Errors and then write the errors that apply to each thought in column 2. There might be just one or there might be several.
5. This is the magic one. Based on the thinking error you’ve identified, in column 3, you write a rational response based on logic, and find a way to replace your flawed thinking with something that makes more sense.
This is the technique in a nutshell. I’ve created an example that you can view (and use yourself–just remember to “Save a Copy” and make sure it is not public before you start sharing your deepest & darkest!). Click here for my example chart.
I really recommend reading Dr. Burns’s books for a deeper analysis of the thinking errors, as well as examples of more logical thinking. He also has other techniques that work best for different problems, like procrastination, self-esteem issues, etc.
This technique works well for mild cases of depression or a persistent bad mood. If you are thinking about or considering killing yourself, call 911 (or your local emergency number) right away. If you have ongoing depression, any place is a good place to start, and self-help techniques are clinically proven to work well, but it can be very helpful to work with a therapist as well.
Let me know your techniques for breaking out of a bad frame of mind!