The Pathways That Link Thoughts to Depression

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • The way we think has a direct bearing on our state of mind. Depression is associated with pessimistic views and black-and-white thinking all of which say something about the nature of the beliefs the person holds. The thought process characteristics of a depressed person are interesting because very often the person makes no connection with the way they feel to some of the thoughts that may have triggered their mood. The simplest idea can develop and flourish to a point where depression follows, yet the idea itself is probably groundless.


    Some of the most common process characteristics involve thinking errors, mood-cognition links, autobiographical memory and rumination. I'll explain a bit about each of these in turn.

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    Thinking errors are basically errors in logic which reinforce the negative thought patterns associated with depression. Examples include the tendency of depressed people to only pay attention to the negative aspects of an experience and to impose extreme interpretations on events. A slight under-cooking of the vegetables might be met with a comment along the lines of ‘yet another example of how totally useless I am'. The comment is an extreme generalization and a clear exaggeration of fact. The tendency to personalize issues is another thinking error. Not uncommonly, depressed people assume personal responsibility for things that are often completely outside of their control.


    When it comes to mood-cognition links the arguments that used to occupy the thoughts of psychologists have pretty much subsided. Basically, the debate was all to do with the direction of the pathway; does cognition (thought processes) influence mood or is it the other way around? Today the general consensus is that of a two-way relationship. For example, a depressed mood influences a range of cognitive processes and the resulting negative thoughts that stem from this feed back into the low mood and help to consolidate negative thoughts and beliefs.


    Autobiographical memory is also affected during depression. This refers to our memories of events from the past and during depression there is the tendency to recall even recent past events in a rather broad fashion. A specific memory, for example, would be along the lines of, ‘I met Jack at the café and we both tried their new blueberry smoothie'. During depression the tendency is towards referring to situations of longer duration or collections of events (‘the times I go to the café'). Where memories are discussed the depressed person often appears to struggle with finding a balanced interpretation of events.


    My final example is rumination, something most people can identify with to a greater or lesser extent. Rumination refers to those persistent and invariably negative thoughts that seem to keep people stuck in a certain mindset. The extent to which the mindset of people with depression seems to get stuck has been demonstrated in a simple experiment by Jutta Joorman, of the University of Miami, in collaboration with Sara Levens and Ian H. Gotlib of Stanford University. The researchers recruited 26 people with depression and 27 people with no history of depression and asked them to recall a list of words presented on a computer screen. One task was to recall the position of a word in reverse order. It was found that people with depression had the greatest difficulty trying to re-order words in their head. They had an even harder time when the word presented had some negative connotation like "death" or "sadness". This points to the fact that words, especially negative words, appear to get stuck in working memory (the thoughts we keep active in our mind). The greater the difficulty the person had with the task the more likely they were to experience problems with rumination. With this in mind it may be possible to train people to adopt different thought strategies in order to turn away from negative thoughts.


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    Dysfunctional assumptions and negative personal beliefs are vulnerability factors that contribute to our experience of events. The more flexible these are the greater is the potential to view things in a more positive and less personal light.




    Association for Psychological Science (2011, June 3). People with depression get stuck on bad thoughts, unable to turn their attention away, study suggests. Science Daily. Retrieved June 16, 2010, from


Published On: June 16, 2011