Have you ever made a mistake and thought to yourself, “I can’t believe I just did that. I’m an idiot.”? Maybe you overlooked something at work or said something you immediately regretted. Almost all people experience thoughts like that at least from time to time. While nobody enjoys making a mistake and experiencing negative thoughts about themselves, for most people most of the time those kinds of thoughts don’t drastically move our emotional needle. Sure, we may feel frustrated, silly, or embarrassed, but those feelings are often momentary and dissipate as quickly as the thought that brought them.
But sometimes those same thoughts can be much more disruptive and lead to more intense and prolonged emotions – like sadness, shame, anxiety, and hopelessness that lasts hours or longer. Why is it that we can have such different reactions to the same situation and thought? One major reason is the weight and attention we give to our thoughts. In the first situation above, we may not be emotionally stirred because by nature we don’t give much credence to passing thoughts like, “I’m an idiot.” We see them as just words in a thought that doesn’t reveal any deeper truths about ourselves. Thoughts like that pass through our mind but don’t gain any traction. Unrelated thoughts (that are either neutral or positive) quickly fill their place as we go about our day continuing on in our normal mood either working to resolve the mistake we made or moving on.
However, when we’re already emotionally stretched – because were stressed, depressed, anxious, etc. – we’re more likely to react more strongly to thoughts like, “I’m an idiot.” We may not view it as merely a passing thought but instead (unintentionally) uncritically accept it as a truth about ourselves with profound implications for our lives and our future. We may then experience doubts about our ability to be successful in our relationships and careers or be happy. This pattern of thinking triggers more troublesome thoughts that further kick up our distress. If you’ve never experienced high levels of anxiety or depression, this example may seem far-fetched. But if you’ve been struggling with anxiety or depression that you just can’t seem to shake, it’s probably not hard to remember times when seemingly simplistic thoughts like, “I’m an idiot,” triggered some real uncomfortable feelings and distress and shook your views about some aspect of your life.
The good news is that through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) you can learn how to identify, manage, and respond to the negative thoughts that are driving your anxiety and depression. From stepping back and critically examining your thoughts to learning to develop a more healthy relationship with your thinking, you can get relief from your negative thoughts and beliefs. While I’ll have more to say about each of those elements in future posts, the important point to remember for now is you can find freedom from anxiety and depression by learning new ways of handling and relating to your thoughts.