Depression can lead to habitual negative thoughts. Try these expert-tested tips and tricks to counter depression symptoms and practice positive thinking.
By Wyatt Myers Medically reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
If you or a loved one is among the 9 percent of Americans living with depression, you know that it can be a complicated condition. Finding a path to healing — and turning negative thinking to positive thinking — often takes more than just medication.
Depression can be so challenging, in part, because it alters your general way of thinking. Although a person who doesn’t have depression will have a normal mix of positive and negative thoughts each day, having depression tends to make you filter the world through negative thoughts to the point that it distorts reality and your overall outlook on life. Instead of seeing the glass as half full, you may see it as empty.
Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, has seen this negative thinking overwhelm people. The problem, he says, is that people with depression get caught in a dangerous spiral, where depression leads to negative thinking, and negative thinking makes them even more depressed.
“Habitual negative thinking can lead to many problems,” Dr. Rego says. “First, given the connection between thoughts and emotions, it can serve to bring down or keep down your mood. Second, negative thoughts can influence the way you act and react, which can lead to a variety of problematic behaviors.” This could include cutting back on activities that can boost your mood, like socializing and exercising and increasing activities that may intensify your bad mood — such as sleeping, eating, or drinking too much.
Putting a stop to negative thinking isn’t as simple as just shutting off a switch. Over time, these patterns get so ingrained that they become your normal, everyday way of thinking.
“Often the negative thinking becomes habitual as a defense mechanism to rationalize the feelings of depression,” says Forrest Hong, Ph.D., LCSW, a psychologist and social worker in Los Angeles. “After a while, these negative behaviors seem like an easier technique of coping with depression symptoms.”
Challenging Negative Thinking: Strategies That Can Help
To get a handle on depression symptoms such as negative thinking, try exercises that “retrain your brain.” Keep in mind that it’s generally not healthy to push negative thoughts out of your head entirely. But what you can do is acknowledge them — and even write them down if need be — and then try to step back and assess them logically, so you can reframe them more positively.
To demonstrate this, Rego offers this example of a boss at work who seems to be ignoring you. You interpret the boss’s failure to say “hello” to you in the morning as a sign that he or she doesn’t like something you did and that you’re going to get fired. Instead, acknowledge these thoughts, and then assess them rationally. Remind yourself that your boss rarely says “hello” to anyone and that getting fired would take a more serious series of events than whatever you think you did. Next, think about what will prevent you from getting fired, like getting your work done. In just a few minutes, you’ve used positive thinking and actionable steps to stop a spiral of negative thoughts that could’ve led to a depressive episode.
But learning to think this way doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice, and possibly the help of a professional. Consider these strategies to free your mindset and boost other parts of your depression therapy:
Try cognitive therapy
A therapist can help you put the thought replacement strategy outlined above into practice. A study published in the journal American Family Physician found that cognitive therapy is an effective treatment for depression and that cognitive therapy combined with antidepressants can effectively manage severe or chronic depression. Think of a mental health care professional for counseling or cognitive therapy the way you would think about a personal trainer for physical fitness: He or she can help you understand, recognize, and find ways to undo negative thinking.
Writing down negative thoughts can help you work through them and arrive at a more rational and positive way of thinking. In addition, a thought journal can help you see behavior patterns — what circumstances lead to your negative thoughts — and get you thinking about ways to change those circumstances. For example, you might notice that your thoughts turn especially pessimistic after interacting with certain people.
Take a few minutes each day for relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing, to get a handle on your thoughts and emotions when they’re feeling out of control. Dr. Hong recommends tai chi, which is also a great fitness option, and says that even an activity as simple as walking can give your mood a boost.
Work on your physical well-being
Many people with depression could benefit from better lifestyle habits, Hong says. Lack of exercise, poor diet, or drug or alcohol abuse can pull you down. Making better choices in these areas can contribute to positive thinking in all areas of your life.
Taking these steps to brighten your overall outlook can help you feel better about yourself and your future — an integral part of healing from depression and living a happier life.