You’re Not On Your Own – Emily Clarkson
Emily Clarkson set up her blog, Pretty Normal Me, as a way of saying to other young women like her and her sister that ‘you’re ok’. Whoever you are, whatever you look like -- despite the pressure that she has noticed in other media. Emily has been diagnosed with anxiety and found herself prey to worrying thoughts. It took her a while to accept and understand that diagnosis. She says she’s now stronger and braver than she’s ever been thanks to her acceptance of herself. For more real-life stories from those with mental health issues, or for ideas on how to improve your wellbeing.
I Am Having Negative Thoughts
An internal dialogue is absolutely normal and, in fact, is representative of an active and enquiring mind. When we are depressed or anxious however, our self-talk can change dramatically and can often become highly self-critical, or derogatory, so that we are exposed to a daily berating of ourselves.
Such negative thoughts can come from all sorts of places: early experiences of having been criticised; ‘scripts’ from families, early friendships or schools, for example, about how we should be; current friendship groups; partners or other relationships; tutors, and so on. We can internalise these negative messages over time and, when we feel low or anxious, begin to repeat them back to ourselves as our own.
We can also experience ruminating thoughts – internal repeating thoughts in which we replay certain situations or conversations over and over, which are often negative in their content. Such thoughts can leave us feeling raw, exhausted, as well as having an impact on our physical wellbeing, perhaps through sleep loss.
Additionally, internal thoughts might be experienced as negatively intrusive – often very critical, or negative about ourselves, or might involve imagining situations that we would find distressing. Having such thoughts does not mean we would act on them, nor that they are what we hope would happen. Instead, the opposite is generally true: our negative intrusive thoughts often link to things or situations we might find morally or personally repugnant. We fear the worst, and think accordingly.
Depressed and anxious thinking
Your thoughts and beliefs about a situation determine how you feel about it, and how well you can cope with it. Unhelpful or negative depressed thinking habits help depression and anxiety to flourish. Check these common types of depressed thinking…
Thoughts are powerful
Our thoughts have a very powerful effect on how we feel and behave. Think about what happens if you hear a noise at night and believe someone is breaking in to your house – you immediately feel highly anxious and your body goes into fight or flight mode. But what if you hear the noise and think that it’s just the cat? Very different feelings in response to the same event.
There are a number of common depressed thinking habits or ‘thinking errors’ which help depression to flourish – and which in turn are reinforced by depression. Can you identify in yourself any of these unhelpful ways of thinking?
Most depressed thinking habits contain an element of mental filtering or ‘tunnel vision’, where only one part of a situation is focused on and the rest is ignored. The tendency is to focus on the negative aspects or interpretations of a situation and to ignore alternative ways of seeing things.
Some people pride themselves on being ‘all-or-nothing’ people, believing that this represents strength and certainty. However, a strong habit of all-or-nothing or rigid thinking offers a wide open door to depression. Examples:
- “I’m not totally in control” = “I’m chaotically out of control”
- “I’m not perfectly safe” = “I am unsafe and insecure”
- “I didn’t come top of the class” = “I’m a complete failure”
- “I’m not liked by everyone” = “I am horrible”
But the reality is that reasonable levels of safety or some measure of control are possible, there are different levels of success and it is unrealistic to expect universal popularity – there is almost always a ‘middle ground’ to be found.
Tackling all-or-nothing thinking is important because it forms an element of most depressed thinking habits. Other all-or-nothing thinking habits include:
- Thinking about suicide (a dangerous all-or-nothing solution to a temporary problem)
- Perfectionism (setting unrealistically high standards, leading to a sense of failure, procrastination and self-bullying)
- Over-generalisation (eg. predicting the future based on one negative past event, “I never..”)
- ‘Control freakery’ (rule-bound thinking based on unrealistic expectations for control)
- Jumping to conclusions
This way of thinking makes the mistake of seeing the way you feel as ‘evidence’ about the reality of a situation.
For example, thinking that feeling bad means that you are bad, or that feeling anxious is evidence that something bad is going to happen. Other forms of emotional reasoning include superstitious thinking (eg. an irrational belief that because you allow yourself to hope your hope will be dashed) and disappointment insurance or cynicism (believing that expecting the worst will protect you from disappointment).
There are things we can do however, to begin to tackle our thinking. This is something that we might consider talking to our GP about, or a counsellor, but there are other self-help steps we can take. Take a look at our page on challenging depressed thinking.