If you’re depressed and ever picked up a self-help book or worked with a therapist, chances are you’ve encountered the phrase “cognitive distortions.” This refers to the ways your depressed brain distorts your thoughts and keeps you in a negative feedback loop. Examples of cognitive distortions are:
All or Nothing Thinking: The belief that if everything isn’t going right, it must all be going wrong. This distortion makes it hard to see multiple existing truths, or the “grey areas” of life. Example: “My date never texted me back. They must have never liked me at all.”
Overgeneralization: This distortion turns one singular event into a never-ending pattern. Overgeneralization makes it hard to distinguish exceptions from the rule. Example: “Last time I had a panic attack I was by a grocery store. Grocery stores trigger panic attacks. I can’t go grocery shopping in person.”
Mental Filter: Like “rose colored glasses”, the mental filter colors everything we see based on one negative detail. With a negative mental filter, it can be hard to notice joyful or positive moments in life when they do occur. Example: “Jawan gave me a compliment because he’s expecting something out of it, not because he means it.”
Jumping to Conclusions (mind reading, fortune telling): This distortion helps us assume the worst by giving us the power to know what people think or what will happen in the future based on a single event, or our own feelings. Of course, no one has the power to read minds or see the future, but when we’re feeling defeated or anxious it can be easy to conflate our experiences with “the way things are.” Example: “I didn’t email my friend back this week, she probably thinks I hate her and am a lazy person .”
Magnification/Minimization (catastrophizing): Giving negative events more weight, discounting positive events. Similar to a negative mental filter, this distortion can make it hard to notice and appreciate positive things in our lives. Example: “I know Bob called me yesterday, but he didn’t pick up today – he probably doesn’t want to see me ever again.”
Emotional Reasoning: This distortion could be summed up with the phrase “I feel therefore it is true.” Emotional reasoning turns our personal feelings into universal facts. Example: “This quiz is making me feel anxious. Talking about cognitive distortions will probably be more uncomfortable than helpful.”
Should Statements: With this distortion, you’ll find yourself being held accountable to (often unrealistic or unfair) expectations. Should Statements ignore the important truth that there is no one right way to be an adult, good person, or human being. Example: “I’m 30, I should be living on my own. That’s what a real adult should do.”
Labeling/Mislabeling: Labels can sometimes be empowering, a way to identify ourselves and build community. In the case of this distortion, we create identity based on one negative action or situation. Example: “I made a mistake. I am a careless person.”
Personalization: This distortion centers you as the root cause for any and all events in your life. While it can feel safe to have control of the situation, even if it only means we are to blame, this distortion forgets that the world is bigger than we are, and any given interaction or event can have many, many causes. Example: “Sally didn’t show up for our date because I’m disgusting.”
One thing all cognitive distortions have in common is that they train your brain to view negative stimuli as relevant information, and to view positive stimuli as irrelevant information. This is both a product of feeling depressed and can keep you in depressed state longer. For example, let’s say you spill coffee down your shirt while talking to a co-worker and then they complimented your work on a recent project. In the span of 2 minutes you’ve received a negative stimuli (spilling coffee down your shirt and feeling embarrassment) and positive stimuli (getting a compliment from a coworker.) A depressed brain will dismiss the positive stimuli as irrelevant, and focus on the negative (coffee, embarrasment.) It may even link the two, telling you that the only reason you received a compliment is because your co-worker felt pity for you.
One way to take care of your depressed brain is to teach it to recognize positive moments as relevant information. This can interrupt negative distortions, and prevent negative feedback loops. Here’s how:
Keep a list for one week of Tiny Nice Moments. The name of this list tells you everything you need to know:
Tiny: you’re not looking for Big Life Moments like promotions or proposals, you’re looking for teeny tiny things that feel good but don’t seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
Nice: again, you’re not looking for blissful or ecstatic moments. You’re looking for moments where you smile, or laugh, or just feel a pleasant sensation in your body (fullness, warmth, coolness, connection, etc etc.)
Moments: the things on this list should last only a few seconds - you’re not looking for big things like the entirety of a good first date or an exciting hockey game. You’re looking for a literal 1-5 second moment that was pleasurable or nice in a specific way.
The reason we are tuning in on such a small level is to help your brain get specific. What specific sensations, thoughts, sights, sounds, etc bring you happiness? This specificity will help your brain learn to distinguish positive stimuli from irrelevant stimuli.
Try to hit at least 50 things on your list this week. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t, the point is to push yourself to notice more than you normally would, not to get an exact number. So this might look like:
March 3rd: sun hit the back of my neck while I was waiting for the bus and the warmth was nice
March 3rd: my mom called
March 3rd: I got into a made-bed
March 4th: woke up to the smell of coffee
March 4th: co-worker asked for my help
At the end of the week, look back at your list. What are some common themes? Were there any repeats? What kind of positive input does your brain recognize as more easily relevant? What does that say about you?
With practice, your brain will get better at resisting cognitive distortions and the negative feedback loops that are part of depression.