Can You Think Your Way Out of a Depression?

I’m sorry I’ve been out of it for a while. I tried to keep myself from thinking about Beau too much. I thought it would go away. This horrible pain and loneliness. But it’s back. I spent so much time thinking about so many things. I spent so much time trying to make sense of it. I figured i should write it down. It would help because it helped me before. But I’ve become lazy. But I came across this article posted on my FB account from a friend of mine. It spoke to me. I wanna stop thinking but I’m wired that way. But reading this made me realize I might be digging myself into a deeper hole. I hope it helps someone out there too.Image

Can You Think Your Way Out of a Depression?

Think about it
Published on April 26, 2011 by Jonathan Rottenberg, Ph.D. in Charting the Depths

Whether it’s advanced language, ability to reflect upon the past and plan for the future, or our access to a rich shared culture, our unique human traits are usually a source of pride. But, in my last post, I explored the riddle of rising depression in humans. It seems that the same capabilities that enable our species to harness fire and put a man on the moon lead to self-defeating efforts to control low mood. Do our special cognitive capabilities play into a uniquely human pathway into depression?

A main function of low mood is to draw attention to threats and obstacles in unfavorable environments. The consequences are a pause in behavior and a more careful analysis of the environment. In humans, this analysis is more explicit than in a tiger or a tree shrew. Our advanced language ability permits construction of detailed theories about where painful feelings come from.

It’s natural to expect, “If I understand why I feel bad, I will know how to fix it.” Humans have unique powers of mental simulation (we don’t need to put our hand on a hot burner to know it would be a bad idea to touch). Although it’s easy to make fun of coulda, shoulda, woulda counterfactual thinking, our skill at understanding why bad things have happened helps us to prevent their recurrence. By forewarning ourselves, we are forearmed.

As a scientist who studies mood, I’m naturally all for the examined life. Insight-oriented psychotherapy, weekly talk therapy sessions with the guidance of an expert, can be helpful for depression. It’s also possible for a novice to think their way out of low mood and depression by themselves. But humans are not nearly as good at this as they think they are. Here are several pitfalls of trying to think your way out of a depression.

(1) Repetitively thinking about the causes and consequences of low mood can become habitual. Some people do it even when there aren’t significant challenges in the environment. Research shows that excessive use of this strategy, sometimes called rumination, is associated with depression.

(2) Our advanced language and ability to hold ideas in mind forms a dangerous echo chamber for mood. We are in a sense too good at meaning-making. We can easily think about the meaning of a troubling situation well after the situation has passed (my boss seems mad at me; maybe it was that email I sent three weeks ago?). A bad mood can prompt a potentially unlimited number of stories and implications. These may or may not be relevant to the source of the mood. The meaning-making machine might be doing its thing 24/7, in full overdrive, coming up with dozens of reasons for “why I am so blue?” All the while, low mood could be due to a thyroid deficiency, or some other “meaningless” source.

(3) People tend to be overconfident in the use of thought. It’s much easier to list these pitfalls than to recognize in the moment when thinking is not working. The belief that, “I can just think my way out of depression” comes partially from the fact that we humans solve so many other problems by thinking!

(4) Our meaning-making machine can get stuck.  The worst situation is when persistent thinking does not arrive at a stable theory of the problem, does not solve the problem, and cannot come to terms with the problem; it simply perseverates on the fact of the problem.

(5) As time wears on, the focus of analysis turns away from a problematic environment to a problematic self. This escalating-self-focus is far from benign.  A chimpanzee does not lie awake at night thinking, “I am a terrible mother.” A human does. The next day startssleep deprived, with a mood hangover and little new wisdom won. What started out as an environmental analysis ends up as vicious deconstruction of the self.

(6) Repetitive thinking on the failings of the self is associated with a deepening of depression. Again, this exposes a unique human vulnerability. A dog does not ask itself, “why can’t I just get over this?” or “why am I so weak?” An elaborate conceptual self puts us at greater risk for serious depression when sustained analysis of mood holds the thinker at fault. It’s as if we humans are constantly playing an action film of our own life in our heads. When times are good, we are the hero; when they are bad, we are the villian of the piece.

(7) Once the meaning-making machine is up and running, it’s harder to change gears than you might expect. Our meaning-making machine does not respond to the easy advice, like “snap out of it” or “stop thinking about it”. One must be quite clever to avoid getting sucked into a spiral of negative thoughts. Talk is cheap. Totally squelching mood-relevant thoughts is almost impossible once a serious depression has taken hold. Rather, the trick is to critically engage your thoughts without getting embroiled in them. Some people figure out how to do this on their own. Others use several therapies such as acceptance, mindfulness, or cognitive behavioral –all of which involve techniques for turning down the volume on the verbal meaning analyzer. The goal: To become a detached spectator of your own mind. As you learn how to stand apart from your stream of nasty cognitions, you can question them as they occur, a first step in reclaiming thought for psychological health.

6 thoughts on “Can You Think Your Way Out of a Depression?

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Anna. I just don’t know if I can become a detached spectator of my own mind, especially when my mind is my safest refuge now.

    • That’s normal Kate. We are ruminators. Thinkers. It’s where the depth of our writing comes from. Honestly I don’t know how to stop thinking. I don’t know how that works at all.

      • i too, am a suicide survivor tried to take my life numerous times already. i was seeing a shrink before but it didn’t work well. i can’t stop thinking and i don’t even no how to. anna your blog saved me somehow. now i found a better way to express my thoughts. my prayers are with you anna i hope we’ll all find the answers to our question.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I, too, am a suicide survivor. (WordPress recommended your blog to me. I’m glad I found it.)

    The mind does, indeed, reel in the aftermath. I am getting a lot out of mindfulness meditation practice. It allows me to face thoughts, to think through some difficult ideas in a safe space, and then let them go.

  3. I am not a suicide survivor. I am actively battling the constant urge to take my own life. I stumbled on your blog today after googling a term I heard in group therapy (I am trying VERY hard to stay alive.) I don’t know if you’ll see this, it’ looks like you haven’t written for a while. Your words give hope. I’m sorry, so sorry, about your husband. I can only begin to imagine your pain. And it’s imagining the pain I would put my husband and children through that has kept me alive. I don’t know why I felt the need to comment when you clearly aren’t blogging any more, except to say “thank you for sharing your pain, your perspective. Your grief.

    • Hello Amber,

      Thank you for your comment. I have not been blogging anymore as I find that it was too difficult for me to heal when I keep writing about the pain. I am better now and actually intend to write a book about what happened to our life. I actually fully intend to blog again but maybe I will continue tho blog less as an expression of my pain but more of an expression of hope. Hope for people like me and yes, for people like you. I may not have been in the throes of depression for as long as you and I may have had an easier time fighting it, but I do understand about depression. As you may have learned from my blog, I have gone crazy researching about it, trying to understand what had happened to my husband. I am glad that you are fighting and I will pray that you do not succumb to the urge. It really does get better. Then it will get bad again. Then better. Then Bad. It is simply the way life is. But I know you know that and that it does not make a difference. If it did, I am sure you would choose to stay alive easily as you had mentioned you had a family. I hope you are letting them help you and I pray that they are equipped to help you. I am deeply saddened that you have to be afflicted with this disease as I think it is far harder than battling cancer. But unlike Cancer where sometimes the prognosis is hopeless, believe that you can fight this. I have recently found out that faith is the only thing that can help you through this, And yet, despite being the only thing, it is also unbelievably POWERFUL. Believe in that power. Feel free to contact me at anytime. My email is I will do my best to reply and provide a listening ear. May the universe bless you and may all good energy radiate towards you to help you touch the light. Love and Light, Anna.

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