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How I (Attempt) to Challenge Negative Depression Thoughts

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It is another day in which I feel as if I have no choice but to spend alone in my room. I can’t help but lay in bed feeling immobilized and overwhelmed at the thought of moving. It feels as if all of my energy is being directed toward attempting to ignore the exhaustion radiating through my body. “There is nothing physically wrong with me that is causing my muscles to ache,” I tell myself, “who knew that exhaustion could manifest itself as so much physical pain?”

Of course, the more I lay in bed fighting the exhaustion and frustration at myself for not being able to do more, the more my thoughts begin to spiral out of control. The underlying anger I am constantly carrying towards myself gets louder: Why am I so anti-social? Why do I waste so much time so that I can never accomplish anything meaningful? Why am I so disappointing? The list of questions and frustrations with myself goes on and on, growing more and more unbearable.

Rationally, in moments like these, I know I should be challenging the thoughts. I know I should be coming up with alternatives as an attempt to weaken the negative self-accusations. Yet, while practice has made me better at identifying these alternative thoughts, they can still feel so meaningless.

Sure, the alternative explanations are true for other people. No one can be social all the time, and socialization levels fluctuate based on life circumstances. Everyone needs a rest, even if that rest period ends up lasting months or longer. Finally, it is almost impossible for a person to be disappointing — people are simply fighting their own internal battles, and this sometimes requires self-prioritization or actions that can be difficult for others to understand.

Still, when I am stuck in these thoughts, applying these alternatives to myself can feel more like excuses rather than reasonable perspectives. I find myself trapped in my own head because I can’t see why I am deserving of compassionate thoughts when I can list so many negative qualities.

I still haven’t found an easy answer for how to challenge the thoughts, and every moment I’m stuck inside my head, I wish there was a magic cure. However, the more difficult nights I’ve had, the more I’ve started to learn new strategies for surviving the thoughts.

I’ve learned that it can be helpful to start by viewing the thoughts as information about my own roadblocks to recovery rather than jumping straight to combating them. If I’m struggling so much to challenge so many self-accusations — “anti-social,” “disappointing,” “not enough” — the thoughts most likely stem from a deeper source of frustration I hold toward myself. I may need to confront this greater anger before I can make the thoughts go away. It doesn’t make the thoughts accurate; it makes them a symptom of a greater problem.

It also helps to force myself to breathe. I write down all the alternatives to the thoughts, no matter how untrue they seem. Often, I find myself writing the same alternative challenge over and over, as my mind is too overwhelmed to think of any others. While the emotions can still feel intolerable as I’m writing, the distraction serves as a greater escape than the words themselves.

Finally, I’ve found that it helps to know that there is a community of strong, worthy people with depression who are also struggling to challenge their unfair negative thoughts. As they come up with alternatives, they are offering compassion and forgiveness to others trapped in similar thoughts. If I can’t yet create compassion and forgiveness for myself, maybe I can gain strength by accepting the inspiration and positive energy from others.

Especially on days when it feels like it takes all the strength just to lay in bed and keep breathing, it’s so easy to feel frustrated for not doing enough and to feel drowned by all the self-accusations. Yet, I think it’s also important to remember that the battle against depression is in itself exhausting. For me, while not being able to challenge the thoughts can feel like a loss and like more evidence for why I am not “enough,” maybe it’s also important to remember that just surviving these seemingly intolerable moments is a victory; it is proof that I am stronger than my depression would like me to believe.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai via Unsplash.
Originally published: February 28, 2020
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