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When You Can’t Tell Your Thoughts Apart From Depression and Anxiety

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Therapists have told me for years that it is important to listen to my thoughts to discern between what is really “me” and what is my mental illnesses. When I first began to fight against my depression and anxiety, some part of me believed the unhealthy thoughts would sound different in my head. If I listened hard enough, maybe the thought “I wish I was dead” would come into my head sounding like Darth Vader. When my anxiety was firing off, I hoped it would sound like “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

Obviously, I wasn’t so lucky. I had trouble figuring out which thoughts were authentic and which were distorted. Week after week, I would walk into my therapist’s office to try to explain to her that I never had negative thoughts about myself. I would tell her my frequent panic attacks came out of nowhere and my suicidal thoughts had nothing to do with my self-image. And, week after week, she would tell me to go home and listen more carefully to my thoughts. I never heard Alvin or Vader, so I believed I had a “normal,” healthy brain.

Positive and negative thoughts are so intertwined in a depressed or anxious person’s brain that it is difficult to notice distorted thoughts. A healthy person might think different thoughts are easy to tell apart. “The negative thoughts are the depression!” But it’s not so easy. To someone with distorted thoughts, the phrase “everyone hates me” is just as true as “the sky is blue.” Both elicit the same emotional response. However, the phrase “someone loves me” feels like breaking your mother’s heart. It comes with guilt, shame and an overwhelming sense of “wrong.” How was I, or anyone, to know what was true?

Five years after my first day of therapy, I can tell which thoughts belong to me and which are distorted. Sometimes, I can use my best cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills to turn my negative thoughts positive. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Even though I’ll never hear Alvin or Vader tell me anything, I can hear the difference. Sometimes the negative thoughts say “you” instead of “I” or “me.”

Sometimes they feel different, ripe with emotion. Either way, breaking up the thoughts has made it much easier to practice stopping all of those negative thoughts, and I’m doing better than I ever thought I would. You can do it too!

Photo by Hannah Gullixson on Unsplash

Originally published: August 6, 2019
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