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.