An article in this weekend’s Sun describes research at the University of British Columbia where subjects have learned to become more aware of the unconscious negative thoughts that underlie depression and anxiety. Through a functional MRI scan, they are shown that certain areas of their brain are active when they are thinking these thoughts. They also learned to control these thoughts with the goal of improving depression and decreasing anxiety.
The idea that automatic thoughts – just below our level of awareness – influence our moods is not new. It is the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy.
Our moods obviously influence our thoughts and behaviour. If you have social anxiety, you’ll probably avoid going out to parties and meeting new people. If you’re depressed, you’re also more likely to stay home and maybe even just stay in bed.
And our moods shape our perceptions and our thoughts. If you have a lot of anxiety, you will see more risk and danger in the world. Your thoughts amplify those risks. If you’re depressed, you’ll interpret your situation and the actions of others more negatively.
People who are suffering from anxiety see the world more threatening than it really is. In their thoughts, they exaggerate the risks and tend to catastrophize. They get into cycles of “What if?” thinking that can lead to avoidance and inaction.
When we’re depressed, we tend to interpret ourselves, others and our situation in a negative way. If something goes wrong, we may blame ourselves and our own shortcomings or see it as further evidence that nothing goes right for us or that the life is a bummer. We may falsely assume that others don’t like us or judge us negatively.
Cognitive behavioural therapy aims at making us more aware of the automatic thoughts that underlie and perpetuate depression, anxiety or anger. With increased awareness and coaching, we can think about ourselves, others and our lives in more flexible ways and try out alternate explanations for why things are the way they are.
When we are more aware of our dysfunctional thoughts, we can then question the beliefs that underlie them. With time and effort, we can challenge and reshape our core beliefs about ourselves and our lives.
If you or someone you know suffers from anxiety or depression, check out the Bounce Back program at http://www.cmha.bc.ca/services/bounceback/faq and talk to a physician about the various treatments options, including cognitive behavioural therapy.