Depression and Negative Thinking
Of the very many studies that focus on the mental health processes of people with depression, surely one of the most common relates to whether depressed people think more negatively than non-depressed people. It is certainly a fact that on virtually every measure available, depressed people emphasise negative thoughts. The extent of this negative thinking includes a tendency to retrieve negative memories over positive and negative thinking for current and future circumstances.
An essential component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the collaboration between the therapist and the client in finding ways to associate thoughts with feelings. In practice, this translates to finding ways to help ‘catch' automatic negative thoughts and begin to challenge them. Typically, the client is asked to keep a written record of experiences that arouse them emotionally, the thoughts they associate with these experiences, and alternative thoughts to the negative one's they typically experience. For example, an event could be along the lines of, "I asked my colleague to help me with typing but she said she was too busy". The related negative thoughts might be, "I don't believe her, she just doesn't like me". Alternative thoughts might be, "I've no evidence to disbelieve her, if she says she was too busy, she must be". And so on, for each emotional event as they arise.
With such clinical emphasis on negative thinking in depression it is inevitable that its role as a risk factor for depression should be investigated. Surprisingly few attempts at establishing this have been undertaken. What studies there are have been unable to determine whether negative thinking is a predictor of depression in previously non-depressed individuals.
Whilst negative thinking is a feature of depression, one of the many debates within psychology is whether it is some kind of distortion in thinking, whether it reflects a bias in thinking, or whether it is actually a more realistic - sadder but wiser - type of thinking? In an attempt to answer the question Haaga et al (1991) reviewed various studies reflecting these different positions. Haaga concluded that whilst a negative bias in thinking is clearly evident in depression, it could not really be considered a ‘distortion' in thinking so much as it reveals a lack of flexibility in terms of the possible alternatives.
Understanding mental processes are vital if we are to understand more about depression. Treatment approaches such as CBT are informed by a cognitive approach which tends to view depression as a direct result of the meaning that derives from a certain form of thinking. The therapy based around these assumptions has had some success but critics point to a treatment focus that emphasises mental processes over often complex and highly stressful environments. As a reaction to this some therapists have begun to actively explore more integrated treatment approaches.
Hammen, C (2005) Depression. Psychology Press Ltd