Written by : Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D. 

3 Ways to Avoid the Depression Trap

Depression drains our energy and gathers momentum with repetitive thoughts, indecisiveness, and a gloomy outlook. The symptoms of depression are well known: too much or too little sleep, weight loss or gain, lack of motivation, fatigue and little or no sex drive. With depression, the lack of energy often makes it difficult to shake it off and make effective changes. But some people have found a way to beat it. What’s their secret?

The real problem with the depression trap isn’t about getting out—it’s staying out. People take medicine—and then stop. They exercise for a while—then give it up. They go to therapy—then take a break. People try many things to feel better and then slide back into the trap. If this has happened to you, you’re not alone. It is estimated 80% of people with a depression relapse—those who don't have learned to handle their repetitive negative thoughts.

Wellness Through Awareness

Research has shown that there are some direct ways to challenge these thought patterns and turn despair around. The 20% who don’t fall back into it have learned to master shutting down or turning around their negative thoughts. Your thoughts are like the front wheels of a car. If they are turned to the left, that’s the direction it goes. Those kept out of the depression trap have grabbed hold of the steering wheel and pointed it in the other direction.

Sometimes these thought patterns are automatic and happening just under the radar, and sometimes they are more noticeable and intrusive. If they are automatic negative thoughts (sometimes called ANTs), then you want to catch yourself thinking. If they are more invasive, you’ll want to question them right away. By noticing thought patterns, you become more aware that the repetition is generated internally rather than by an event on the outside.

These thoughts typically fall into categories that cause you to blame yourself systematically or others, see everything as negative or catastrophic, jump to conclusions without enough evidence, or believe you know what others are thinking about you. The key to catching yourself thinking is to notice the repetition. A one-off negative thought isn't much of a concern—but a hundred of them are. Once you are aware, you have a repetitive negative view the goal is always the same: Challenge it as soon as you can.

Take Away the Power of Negativity

In noticing repetitive thoughts, you've accomplished the first step in self-regulation and true change. You’ve grabbed hold of the wheel. If you can observe the repetitive pattern, it means the thoughts are something you experience—not who you are. This is important because getting some distance from these thoughts is essential. It gives them less power over you and sets the stage for challenging them. Once you've grabbed the wheel, you have the power to turn it in the direction you want to go.

Let’s say you often catch yourself thinking: “I’m not good enough.” Once you notice this is a pattern, ask yourself a question: "Am I really not good enough?" This does several things. At the very least, it slows down your thoughts by testing them, and, more importantly, it opens the door to the third step—to provide evidence to the contrary.

You doubt the negative thoughts may not be entirely accurate. "Am I really not good enough?" might initiate thoughts about real examples that show competence, perseverance and willingness to learn. This kind of evidence challenge lets you soften these repetitive thoughts. “I’m not good enough,” becomes: “I’m not good enough—yet.” The old repetitive thought leads back to a depression. The new thought leads to hope.

In a nutshell:

  1. Catch yourself thinking.
  2. Question these thoughts.
  3. Provide evidence to the contrary.
Don’t expect all of your negative thinking and depression to evaporate overnight. But you’ll make progress if you regularly challenge your repetitive thoughts. Most of all don't get discouraged by telling yourself you don't have the skill. Instead, just remind yourself that you haven’t mastered the technique—yet.
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