Professor Garry Egger

Learning to deal with negative thoughts in a positive way may help manage depression.
Far be it for me to paraphrase a great French philosopher, but I’m sure if Descartes was alive today he would agree that his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am”, could be made more topical by adding “…depressed, anxious, self-conscious, happy, sad, disturbed… whatever!”

Similarly, Brillat-Savarin, who first said you are what you eat, might be tempted to reposition this to ‘you are what you think’.

Thought is the basis of emotions. As such, it’s the driving force of much behaviour (and lack of it) associated with mental and physical health. It can influence fear, depression, stress and distress. Indeed, most modern psychological therapies, from CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to RET (rational emotive therapy), are based around different ways of changing an individual’s way of thinking.

The importance of this is summed up by some of our greatest thinkers through the ages.

Over 2000 years ago the philosopher Epictetus said: “People are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them.” This view was shared by Shakespeare, who had Hamlet muse that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”, and Mark Twain, who personalised this concept in his self-deprecating expose that “I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened”.

Perhaps the most powerful influence of thought on mental health is exemplified through its effect on depression. At least in its milder forms, depression can start as a series of adverse experiences (reactive depression). Coupled with a non-resilient personality and genetic influences, a downward spiral can then develop, through depressive thought cycles, into biological changes in the brain from which escape becomes more difficult.

Where this is the case, early intervention is paramount. Simple lifestyle changes, like increased physical activity and dietary improvements can help slow, and even reverse, some of the central neural atrophy associated with being ‘bitten by the black dog’.

More relevant however is a change in the processes of thinking. Thoughts, like behaviours, can be changed. But for someone who has had a lifetime of thinking in a certain way, this is not as simple as just telling him or her to think positively.

A first stage in the process is to recognise that thoughts are not reality. They are a learned way of interpreting the world. Next is learning to differentiate between functional thoughts, or those required for daily living, and non-functional or emotion based thoughts that are generally egotistical and can be either irrationally positive or negative.

This latter type can become ‘cemented’ into the mind through constant recurrence. If this was positive, all might be well. But usually it’s the negative and the ‘me-based’ thoughts that recur more often, and therefore stick hardest.

Good treatment, whether psychotherapy, meditation or reality approaches, helps the individual differentiate functional from non-functional thought and reduces the potency of the latter, hence bringing learning into the cognitive process. In some instances this means reducing the opportunity for negative thought.

A common prescription for the early stages of depression is, for example, to exercise in the morning after waking early, rather than lie in bed, ruminating.

Problems can occur in a sound healthy body via various microbes and destructive lifestyles. Problems also get in the way of a sound mind through learned and ‘me-centred’ non-functional thinking. Negative thoughts are like the bad microbes of the mind, for which ‘psychological immunisation’ through learned thinking can be likened to a regular flu shot.

The body’s immune system is functional at birth and acts to restore physical health in the presence of invading pathogens. In a similar way, the inherent tendency of a sound mind towards maintaining good psychological health is like a psychological immune system that struggles to restore a natural core of good mental health in light of life experiences.

If negative, non-functional thoughts can be reduced, the natural core of good psychological health becomes the default mode, just as good physical health is the default mode when the body’s immune system fights off disease.

Perhaps the last word comes from the author and psychologist Dr Richard Carlson, who made the point in his book Stop Thinking and Start Living that “being upset by your own thoughts is similar to writing yourself a nasty letter – and then being offended by that letter”.

The trick is in learning how to stop writing such letters to oneself.

Professor Garry Egger

Director, Centre for Health Promotion and Research, Sydney; Professor of lifestyle medicine and applied health promotion, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.