mental health

What Are You Thinking About? Understanding how your thoughts can lead to depression.

We get thousands of thoughts flooding our head every day. Other than routine thoughts about making dinner plans with friends and family or what we’re going to wear to work tomorrow, we sometimes get random thoughts from our past.

Yes…it’s perfectly normal to get a mish-mash of thoughts of your past, out of the blue.

Think about it for a moment. What were you thinking about just before you started reading this? Our thoughts are generated by an event and we react to these thoughts based on how we feel.

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Here’s a simplified example of how our thoughts work:

Event: Your daughter has a dental appointment at 4 pm and you noticed that it’s 3:45 pm and you still haven’t picked her up from school yet.

Thought: You think to yourself, I’m running late! I’d better hurry and drive faster to pick her up.

Feelings: You feel anxious, worried and a little irritable now because you have to rush.

Behavior: Based on your thoughts and feelings, you drive faster to pick her up and the moment she gets into the car, you hurry her up and get agitated and raise your voice because she’s taking her time getting her seat belt on.

But sometimes, we get thoughts that pop up in our head based on a memory. If your childhood was plagued by bad experiences of abuse, trauma, arguments and family violence, your brain became programmed to those negative experiences. The repetition and patterns of negative behaviors in a negative environment hard wired your brain to  have recurring thoughts even as you get older. And since you get thousands of thoughts every day based on your experiences, you’ll sometimes get these negative memories creep into your headspace, reminding you of those bad times. These reminders (as explained above) can make way for unhealthy behaviors. This is partly the reason behind depression and anxiety because we create these unhealthy thoughts from our past which creates the depression, and we respond with fear and anxiety.

What happens when you have a memory of a negative experience? You likely begin to reminisce and eventually feel sad, lonely, depressed and maybe even a little resentful.

What happens when you have several of these memories in a day? That’s right. You begin feeling miserable and detached from everything and everyone around you. And when this continues on a regular basis every single day, this forges a pattern of depression.

So why do we think about these bad memories and thoughts?

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When you were a child, your mind was malleable and easily influenced by your environment. If you were bullied, teased, abused or traumatized, the underlying message you heard was that you were unlovable and unworthy of anything good. These experiences put a dent in your self-esteem and you subconsciously blame yourself for all the events that took place. In your mind, you told yourself that you deserved to be punished, bullied or abused (this can lead to the “doormat syndrome” as an adult, allowing others to tell you what to do).

All these experiences while growing up, seemed normal to you, which is why as an adult, we’re sometimes unaware of the negative things we tell ourselves. Hence, every now and then, the negative thoughts from our past pops up. We re-live those experiences in our head (alone or in our relationships). What happens when you re-live those bad experiences as an adult? We feel angry, resentful, depressed and we punish ourselves and those around us.

What can I do about those unhealthy thoughts? I can’t just forget about those bad memories!

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We certainly can not just mind-wipe our memories as if none of it happened. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, so what can you do to prevent those thoughts from controlling you?

Live in the moment:

Because the thoughts are from our past, we can remind ourselves that those memories are in the past and can not affect us in the present moment. Whatever happened years and years ago, does not define who we are today. If we were abused as a child, it created a lot of negative beliefs in us, but is the abuse still happening today? Likely, not, therefore we no longer need to carry those same negative beliefs. Remember, the present time can be a constant reboot of your brain (your hard drive) and you don’t need to hang onto the past. You might feel you want to (because you’ve hung onto those negative beliefs for so long), but you don’t need to in order to survive. You can create new beliefs for yourself.

Create new beliefs and have fun in the process:

We need to remember the good times and good memories that we experienced as well. It may seem few and far between, but there must have been some small bits of good things that you can recall. And what happens when you think about a good memory? That’s right. It sparks healthier behaviors like smiling and laughing. We even learn to laugh at ourselves which is a great sign of healing.

I love going out with with two ex-coworkers Vincent and Sandra. We only worked together for 1 1/2 years back in 1997 (yikes, so long ago!) but we remain good friends today. Every time we get together, we talk about all the funny jokes we played on each other at work and the silly times we had. We laugh (and Sandra snorts even!) and feel good afterwards because we shared some great memories.

On the flipside, I never really had a birthday party as a child despite my desire to have one. My parents didn’t believe in celebrating birthdays the way most traditional families would, so my birthdays were often forgettable days as a child and never a day worth making a big deal over. I kept that same belief as an adult and when people wanted to celebrate my birthday, I’d either throw a fit of anger or push them away from having a party. I was subconsciously telling myself that I’m not worth celebrating and that I’m not a big deal. Thus, birthdays are typically a bad memory for me. But over the years, I started to accept myself and know that I AM worth celebrating and as a result began creating new good memories of my birthday, celebrating with my friends and loved ones.

Over time, we need to create these new happier memories for ourselves. We may not have many as a child, so we need to make new ones on Christmas, holidays, New Year’s, birthdays, Fridays, milestones and begin celebrating and enjoying life. Plan a get together with friends and family and have fun!

Allow these good memories to flood your thoughts and push out the bad ones. This may take time because of all the negative memories you’ve had, but hey, that just means you’re going to be having A LOT of fun! (That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?) And you can begin to write down a list of these great memories and they don’t have to be anything grand. It can be like the time you went grocery shopping and ran into an old friend and had a memorable conversation with.

Trigger happiness:

If you run into a milestone or specific place that stir up some bad memories, these are called triggers. Slow those thoughts down by saying something out loud to snap you back into the present. Remind yourself, the thought isn’t real and can not affect you now. Then distract yourself with an activity or chore to slowly train your mind to not be affected by those triggers. And as mentioned above, you can create a new positive trigger for yourself on that milestone or specific place by creating a fun and memorable experience for yourself.

Control your memories:

Instead of missing the good old days and feeling depressed afterwards, simply just remember the good time that you had and then stop the memory there. The moment you begin missing the good times, that’s when depression kicks in. My buddy Vince sometimes reminisces about how fun and happy he was when his two kids were really young. He’d take them to playgrounds and movies and his kids would be so thrilled and bursting with laughter. But now as teenagers, neither of them want to spend much time with him. He begins to feel sad and depressed as he thinks about how much he misses those happier days. My suggestion to him is to hold and embrace that warm and good feeling of his memories with his kids, and stop his thoughts there to not allow sadness and longing to kick in.

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Our present can be created by a lot of our past memories and if your past is plagued by negative experiences, now is the the time to practice replaying the good memories in your head and push out the bad ones. Before you know it, you’ll be able to come up with so many good memories and thoughts, that even your friends will begin to notice your smile.

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Jason Lee, Author and Mental Health Instructor.

1 thought on “What Are You Thinking About? Understanding how your thoughts can lead to depression.”

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