Mind Hacks for Depression & Anxiety 4: Light Behind Clouds

Hi there, Pam Coburn-Litvak here. Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you are photojournalist, writing a story about this picture. What did you notice first? What would your headline be? Joe is working on the same story. But this is the way he sees things. All clouds. No rainbow, and certainly no sun. The way you and I see things says a lot about the mental filters we use. In part 4 of my series on Cognitive Therapy, we’re talking about negative mental filters. You and I may use this distortion if we’ve ever had thoughts like this: “There’s nothing good about my work.” “There’s nothing good about my life.” “There’s nothing good about myself.” We often say that optimists wear rose-colored glasses. But negative mental filters are a sure sign of pessimism. The lenses we use here are cracked and cloudy, like an old pair of goggles dug out of a corner of the basement. So, they cloud up the way Joe views the world. Joe dwells on life’s difficulties and ignores any positives that might make things easier. He doesn’t mean to do this. Light just seems to fade out of the scene, making the darkness appear even darker. Joe thinks optimists are the ones that are color-blind. He doesn’t realize he just has a different type of color blindness. Joe fails to see hope the way others fail to see red or green. Joe also has a clouded view of other people. When Joe is around others, he has already mentally prepared himself to get ignored or rejected. He figures, that way he’ll be ready for it. But he’s not ready for people to be nice. When it happens, he generally brushes it off with thoughts like, “They’re just trying to be nice because they feel sorry for me.” Joe also has a clouded view of himself. He doesn’t think much of himself. And this low self-esteem interferes with his relationships. Cognitive Therapy can help by readjusting the lens, allowing the positives of life to shine back through. In this series, we’re applying four basic principles of cognitive therapy to specific distorted thoughts. The first is doing our research. And in this case, we try to remove any negative filters we use to examine the world. Let’s talk about two of most common ones. One is Confirmation bias, which means Joe only pays attention to information that confirms his negative viewpoint. He ignores any information to the contrary. Another is Limited search. This means that, once he finds negative information, Joe stops looking for more. Here’s how these feed into depression and anxiety. Depression makes us feel the world is a dark and terrible place. Anxiety makes us afraid of this kind of world. A confirmation bias may sensitize us to any news or media that confirms our worst fears, and de-sensitize us to news that doesn’t. Limiting our search for information means that, when we see evil in the world, we may stop looking for any good. To fix this, we need to start looking at all the information. And this makes sense, right? Just because we’ve fixed our eyes on the clouds doesn’t mean that the sun is not shining above them. So, we can ask questions like: Am I ignoring positive information just because it’s positive? Why am I doing this? If the reasons are not obvious, try finishing this sentence: “That doesn’t count because…” The second principle involves being more realistic. Try thinking of someone with a generally positive outlook on life. Then ask, “How would this other person see what I am seeing? Is their view less, or more, realistic than mine?” Isn’t seeing the whole picture, both good and bad, more realistic than seeing just one or the other? Third, we find the right cost-benefit ratio. Pessimists live in anticipation of the storm clouds of life, whether it comes in experiences or relationships. They even feel there’s benefit to this: it braces them for any danger ahead. But what if the danger never comes? Is the cost of living in constant preparation worth it? Doesn’t this just create a lot of unnecessary stress and strain? Fourth, we can follow the Golden Rule. Think about some of Joe’s thoughts: “There’s nothing good about my friends or family.” “There’s nothing good about myself.” These are harsh judgments, and they are almost certainly not true, either. Negative mental filters are a stressful kind of blindness, polarizing from view any positives we should see in others or ourselves. The most complete picture can only emerge after all of our filters are removed. We don’t have to deny the faults and mistakes we or others make. But we lift a heavy burden of stress off ourselves by seeking the best in both. Sometimes we use a double standard, meaning we can see good in others, but not ourselves. In this case, we need to ask, “If I were thinking about someone else instead of myself, would I be willing to see more positives?” “What would happen if I got rid of my double standards?” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Please like and share this content. And take a few seconds right now to subscribe. Thanks so much!

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