Psychosocial Stressors: Negative Thought Patterns and Negative Outlook on Life
Emotional well-being is associated with a positive and optimistic — yet realistic — outlook on life.
Depression tends to cause social withdrawal and isolation, which can help perpetuate the tendency to only see the negative aspects of one’s life, fall into negative patterns of thinking, and ultimately come to expect only negative outcomes. Prolonged negative thinking can create an endless feedback loop, one negative thought feeds another and another and another… and eventually, the negativistic thinking becomes a downward spiral that leads to full-blown clinical depression.
Negative thinking usually leads to feelings of worthlessness and loss of self-esteem.
Self-esteem is the abiding set of beliefs we have about our own worth, competence, and ability to relate to others. Self-esteem helps buffer us from adverse life events. Depressed people usually don’t have that inner resource of self-esteem to see them through trying times.
Negative thought patterns often stem from prior negative experiences.
They may be reactivated by current stressful, adverse life events or by ruminating on past negative experiences. Feelings of joy or pride can even evoke painful memories of past disappointments; for example, a depressed person remembers the mother who was never satisfied, the father who was disinterested. The bereaved child within, who has never completed grieving for those incomplete relationships, continues to mourn.
The impact of any stressful event is moderated by the personal meaning of the event.
Cognitive theories of depression emphasize that how we perceive and interpret stressful events helps determine whether or not those events will trigger depression. For example, the breakup of a relationship will trigger a much stronger emotional response if the affected person thinks: I am empty and incomplete without his love. Or: I will never find another who makes me feel the way she does.
Such thought patterns are distorted interpretations.
Common faulty thought patterns that people with depression fall prey to when interpreting adverse events include:
- Assigning global impact. This event will have a big effect on me.
- Internalizing. This is all my fault. I could have done something to prevent this.
- Assuming irreversibility. I’ll never be able to recover from this.
These patterns of negative thinking tends to make us feel helpless, which further worsens depression.
Depression sometimes emerges when we feel helpless or trapped, which is reminiscent of the learned helplessness studies of animals. Animals were trained in an enclosure in which shocks were unavoidable and inescapable, even if they attempted to escape. When they were later placed in enclosures from which they could have easily escaped, they remained immobile and unable to learn avoidance maneuvers. Their previous learned helplessness conditioning kicked in, leading them to believe that attempts to escape were futile.
Depression can make humans behave the same way. Losses and reversals can lead us to believe in the moment that we’ll never experience positive outcomes again and that it’s futile to even try. To the depressed person, even small losses can seem like big ones and take on an inappropriate amount of future significance. To learn how to change negative thought patterns, see How Sahaja Meditation Relieves Depression and Resilience.
Negativistic thinking and negative outlook tend to play a more significant role in triggering the first and second Major Depressive Episodes, but less of a role in triggering subsequent episodes.