10 types of thinking that undergird depression-anxiety

February 5, 2018

Just as we can have bad physical habits like biting our nails, picking our nose, or eating junk food late at night, we can also have bad mental habits. There are styles of thinking that are highly prone to cause and perpetuate depression-anxiety. The first step for someone to stop biting their nails is to realize they are doing it. Likewise, an important step in overcoming depression-anxiety is to recognize these patterns of thought as they are occurring.

Below are ten styles of thinking that fuel the depressive-anxious experience. The goal in studying this is being able to realize when you’re actively engaging in depression-anxiety. In the moments below, depression-anxiety is not “happening to you” but “coming from you.” These are patterns that, by the freedom God gives in the gospel, you can overcome.

In this article, we will briefly examine the futility of each pattern of thought and the truths that debunk them. But it is important to remember that depression-anxiety cannot merely be reasoned away. In his book Running Scared, Ed Welch said, “[On the particular fear of flying] I’ve flown many times before and nothing has happened. It’s the safest way to travel. This might help, but rests on the premise that fear submits to logic, which is a dubious assumption. In reality, fears are rarely logical (p. 23).” Instead, you are arming yourself with awareness and truth which you will live out in relationship with God and others.

1. Idealistic: Ideals are good goals without a sense of time. Most often, if we could stretch our ideals out over a few months or years, they would serve us well. But in their time-condensed form they crush our soul and emotions. Ideal towards others result in pride and anger. Ideals towards ourselves result in depression-anxiety.

Pay attention for times when words like “should” and “ought” dominate your thinking. Memorize Hebrews 10:14, and rest in the reality that what God has guaranteed to do in you, he has promised to do over a lifetime.

2. Impossibly high goals: Impossible goals are either super-human or lack achievable pieces. Impossibly high goals can also result from expecting good things that are not a good fit for your personality or skill set. God gives you the grace to be a finite human being (i.e., someone with limits). God also made you with particular aptitudes, and his design for your life is primarily within those aptitudes.

Pay attention for times when you condemn yourself for not being a different “kind of person.” Restrict your daydreaming about things that are at odds with your personality or gifting. When overwhelmed break a task down into smaller, achievable tasks.

3. Personalization: Everything is not “about you.” That’s an encouraging sentence; not a put down. Often our depression-anxiety reveals that we are “owning” every disappointment in the lives of those we love or that occur around us. We simply cannot emotionally withstand being the center of our own worlds. When we illogically interpret life this way, then depression-anxiety is the only logical response.

Pay attention to when you assign blame or rejection to yourself for things that a healthy, objective person would not ascribe to you. Begin to ask yourself, “Would a ‘reasonable person’ hold me responsible for this?” about each thing that triggers depression-anxiety.

4. Emotional reasoning: When we believe our emotions are true in spite of facts to the contrary, this is emotional reasoning. Often the hardest things to doubt are our fears and despair. These emotions are like bad friends to whom we are fiercely loyal and believe whatever they say; that is, whatever we think while we are in these frames of mind. It is often hard for us to separate the realness of our emotions from their possible lack of truthfulness.

Pay attention to when your emotional disposition is the primary reason you believe your thoughts are true. Ask yourself, “If I had peace or hope, would I believe the same things about this situation?”

5. Catastrophisizing: This style of worst-case scenario thinking (i.e., “I’m going to die, fail out of school, be single forever, etc.) is very frequent at the onset of a panic attack. Catastrophisizing is emotional reasoning on steroids. We begin to live and emote as if our worst fear were true simply because we imagine them. The intensity of emotion and distraction from responsibilities created by this kind of thinking can create a self-fulfilling dynamic.

Pay attention to when you are making bold predictions to yourself (i.e., “This [fear] is going to happen.”). Know your chief fears, and be most skeptical of your pronouncements in those areas.

6. Dichotomous thinking: “It is either great or terrible. It is clearly not great, so it must be terrible.” This is the formula for dichotomous thinking. It provides two options, usually in the extreme. If the good condition is not completely met, then the bad condition is assumed. Life is lived accordingly, and our emotions respond accordingly.

Pay attention to when you are using strong either-or, black-white logic. Oversimplification is not an emotionally neutral thinking pattern. If you are prone to this style of thinking, begin to pray regularly, “God, show me ‘the third way’ of thinking about things that I often rush past.”

7. Selective attention: We constantly filter our attention. It would be impossible for us to give attention to every stimulus (i.e., sound, scent, touch, emotion, etc.) around us. Often depression-anxiety results when we begin to only notice those things that are wrong or out of order. We screen our internal and external environment and only deem those things that are “off” are relevant or worthy of our attention.

Pay attention to when you stop noticing good things. If you do not regularly smile, feel thankful, or have a desire to express gratitude, there is a strong likelihood that your attention filter is stuck on negative.

8. Superstitious thinking: In children or sports fans, superstitious thinking can be cute or entertaining. In real life, superstitious thinking attributes a power to our actions which can be unbearable. Many fears are rooted in the irrational belief about our ability to indirectly influence things outside of our control. Much depression-anxiety is rooted in people thinking their actions or inactions affected outcomes over which they could have had no influence.

Pay attention to when you’re thinking becomes “idiosyncratic”—a way of interpreting reality that is unique to you. If you have to explain things by saying, “I know this sounds weird, but,” it is wise to have skepticism toward the beliefs that underlie your assertion.

9. Passivity: “If I can’t [blank], then I won’t do anything.” This is a pattern of thought that often causes people to cycle between depression and anxiety. The initial passivity and sense of helplessness is experienced as depression. Once “life piles up,” there are seasons of high stress to “catch up.” The near inevitable sub-par performance then has a high propensity to re-trigger a depressive-passive approach to life.

Pay attention to times when what you “can’t do” tempts you to neglect what you “can do.” Realize that the less you do, the less you will believe or feel that you can do. Passivity also has the effect of reducing your number of opportunities.

10. Equating worth with performance: This mindset requires “salvation by works alone” for you while allowing “salvation by grace” for everyone else. It makes you your own judge; your assessment of yourself becomes more influential in your emotions than what Christ gives you in the gospel. We begin to view ourselves as God’s debtors paying back our salvation or employees earning our keep, rather than God’s children whose growth he delights in at every stage in our development.

Pay attention to when you begin to believe that God agrees with your negative self assessments because of what you did or did not do. True guilt is easily remedied with the forgiveness Christ purchased at the cross. False guilt has no exchange. It can only be disbelieved; God honoring it with payment would only validate it.

Which of these patterns of thought are you most prone to engage? What are the mental phrases for which you need to most guard against? As you identify these depression-anxiety patterns, may the Lord use the power of truth to help you walk in freedom.

A version of this post originally appeared here. It is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Overcoming Depression-Anxiety: A Personal Responsibility Paradigm” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 2: ACKNOWLEDGE the breadth and impact of my sin.” To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.

Brad Hambrick

Brad serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in  Durham, North Carolina. He also serves as Instructor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, and has authored several books including Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24