Recognizing and Challenging Depressive Thoughts

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Anyone who has experienced a low mood knows exactly how it affects thinking. It’s only when things improve that we see just how distorted thoughts can become. Here are some common types of low-mood thoughts, along with a four-step process for how to challenge all of them.

Black or White Extremes

When we’re in a healthy state of mind it’s much easier to have a flexible attitude toward things. But low moods come with all-or-nothing thinking. We’re either stupid or brilliant, useless or useful. Even tasks that are nearly complete are dismissed as unfinished. There's no room for gray areas in depressive thinking.

Challenging Depressive Thoughts: Step 1

Self-managing depression isn't as tough as it sounds, but it does require conviction. F****irst, identify the kinds of thinking you use. (Read on.) If you’re uncertain about your own thinking, show this to a trusted friend or loved one and ask if they've noticed any of them in you. Reassure them that you trust them to give you accurate feedback. Pointing out the ones you feel you use the most may help them feel less uncomfortable about contributing.

Negative Bias

Remember that even if an event or situation has been 99 percent successful, these positives will be filtered out. Low moods have a bias towards negative thinking.

Challenging Depressive Thoughts: Step 2

Becoming aware of how we think takes a little time and practice. A lot of our thoughts are rapid and automatic. However, learning to recognize your own depressive thoughts and how they trigger low moods is important.

'Should World'

In the world of "should" there’s a vision of what the world should be like, but it simply hasn’t turned out that way. You think you "should" be happy, successful, admired, loved, rich. "Should world" isn’t realistic, and it holds us back from accepting life’s limitations.

Challenging Depressive Thoughts: Step 2 (continued)

Here’s how to challenge thoughts like Negative Bias, Should World, etc. When you feel your mood sink, ask yourself what you were thinking about leading up to that moment. Record (a notepad or electronic device can help) these thoughts. Keep the process going and at some point you’ll start to notice a pattern emerging. Resist the temptation of judging the worth or merits of what you were thinking. Just write your thoughts down.


Once you feel no more information is forthcoming from writing your thoughts down (Step 2), or you still feel powerless from thoughts such as self-criticism,  it’s time to progress. In step 3, your task is to replace depressive thoughts with thoughts that are fair and realistic.

Second Guessing

Reacting to others on the basis of what we assume they are thinking is a common feature of depressive thinking. Imagined thinking during low moods is always negative and is based on a lack of evidence to the contrary. Situations that involve second guessing are good opportunities to practice replacing depressive thoughts with realistic ones.

Challenging Depressive Thoughts: Step 3 (continued)

Imagine your friend sent you a text. It says they’re running late so they can’t make your usual coffee time together. This is a typical trigger for low-mood thinking: "That’s just an excuse not to see me (second guessing) but it’s no surprise (negative bias) because I wouldn’t want to hang out with someone like me (self-criticism). My day is ruined (catastrophic thinking)."

Catastrophic Thinking

The smallest problem or disappointment becomes a disaster. Everything is ruined as a result -- your day, your week, even your life. Catastrophizing is a form of exaggeration, but it's something the depressive person genuinely feels.

Challenging Depressive Thoughts: Step 3 (continued)

Now let’s make the reaction kinder and more realistic: "That’s unusual because we often meet for coffee. Still, I could always check out that new store, instead. I’ll text her later and maybe we can sort out another time."

Bleak Cascades

Within bleak cascade thinking, negative events seem like the start of a never-ending cascade of disasters. For example, a single failure means every future attempt is bound to fail.

Challenging Depressive Thoughts: Step 4

Doing Step 3 over a morning or a day won’t be enough. To change a pattern, you must keep the faith for as long as it takes. Neutralizing negative thinking isn't a quick fix, but take heart : after just a few weeks of diligent practice you’ll find your thinking changes and your mood improves. Your "automatic" thinking may take a while longer, but with practice, what seems like bleak cascades of negative events can soon be seen in a more positive light.

Final thoughts

You may find that this four-step process feels contrived, and you’d be correct to the extent that it takes time and motivation. However, if you’ve been locked in a cycle of low moods and depressive thoughts, working through these steps might just turn things around in your favor.