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Nancy Schimelpfening

You Are What You Think?

By April 22, 2014

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In an article entitled "You Are What You Think" I wrote about a form of psychotherapy called cognitive therapy. The premise of cognitive therapy is that our thoughts are quite powerful and if we habitually think in a negative way our mood will follow our thoughts causing feelings of depression. Defeating depression thus becomes a matter of recognizing these faulty thoughts and replacing them with more truthful, positive thoughts.

If our thoughts are powerful enough to influence how we feel, it stands to reason that how good or bad our reality is is simply a function of how we wish to perceive it; and, not surprisingly, some of our greatest, most respected thinkers have stated this same concept in their own words:

"I saw all things that I feared, and which feared me, had nothing good or bad in them save insofar as the mind was affected by them."
--Benedict de Spinoza

"People and things do not upset us, rather we upset ourselves by believing that they can upset us."
--Albert Ellis

"We become what we think about all day long."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
--William Shakespeare

"People are about as happy as they make up their mind to be."
--Abraham Lincoln

"Change your thoughts and you change your world."
--Norman Vincent Peale

"As you think, so shall you be."
--Jesus Christ

What do you think? Is it possible to think ourselves into feeling depressed? Do our thoughts really create our reality? Or are all these men wrong?

Comments
February 25, 2009 at 7:33 am
(1) Wendy Aron says:

I’ve been in cognitive behavior therapy for over twenty years, and while it’s not a magic bullet, I believe that it does help to change negative patterns of thinking that affect how I feel. As Shakespeare said: “Nothing is bad or good, but thinking makes it so.”

Wendy Aron, author of Hide & Seek: How I Laughed at Depression, Conquered My Fears and Found Happiness
http://www.wendyaron.com.

February 25, 2009 at 9:55 am
(2) Marilyn Elliott says:

I absolutely believe that your thoughts can change your world! However, there can be a point at which you are too ill to help yourself when you are in a major depression. Only when you get back above the line, and your mind is able to function again, can you begin to make the change to healthy thinking. Difficult work – but it can be done!

February 25, 2009 at 11:19 am
(3) Steve784 says:

I noted that several of the “great thinkers of our time” that you quoted also suffered from, at that time, “melancholy”, today known as depression. Makes you wonder just how successful they were at being what their thoughts directed them? (Or were they hearing voices?)

“Those that believe they can ‘positively think’ their way out of depression are the same ones that think they can think their way out of the flames of hell.” How’s that for a quote? It’s mine, and includes my 20+ years experience with my own depression.

February 25, 2009 at 11:30 am
(4) John Condron says:

Amazing! Talking about the approach to psychotherapy with the strongest body of evidence, you end with “What do you think?” as if this was a matter of opinion.

The article referenced in the top line of this blog posting is an excellent introduction to Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), but I wonder how many people will actually go and read it.

This posting runs the risk of leaving readers with the wrong impression. It includes a series of quotes, only one of which is from someone involved in the development of CBT (though Spinoza is often quoted by practitioners, his death predates the development of CBT by several centuries), and asks “Or are all these men wrong?”

These are the wrong questions. A better one is “does CBT work?” The research findings on that question are pretty clear.

For just one of hundreds of examples, the most recent results from the Treatment for Adolescents with Depression Study (TADS) show that the overall remission rate at 36 weeks was about 60%. The rates were similar in each of the 3 treatment groups: antidepressant fluoxetine alone (55%), cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) alone (64%), or a combination of these 2 therapies (60%). They didn’t even bother to look at other forms of psychotherapy, as CBT has become the “gold standard.”

CBT alone was 9% MORE effective than drug treatment alone, and 4% MORE effective than the combination treatment (though the latter was probably within the margin or error for the study).

Combination therapy does seem to have achieved remission earlier, though. While teens enjoyed the same higher remission rate at 36 weeks regardless of which treatment they received, those who were on combination therapy remitted earlier.

“If you select monotherapy either medication or CBT you could be delaying remission for up to 2 to 3 months,” principal investigator Betsy D. Kennard, PsyD, from the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern, in Dallas, told Medscape Psychiatry.

Of course, given the facts that antidepressants have side-effects, and CBT does not, and that CBT appears to be at least equally as effective as medication (some studies say more effective), an argument can be made that speeding up remission by a few months does not overcome the risks of drug treatment.

February 25, 2009 at 12:29 pm
(5) Marty says:

I have to acknowledge and agree with Marilyn Elliott’s post here. Clinical (major) depression is physiological, the reality of skewed brain chemistry. I know from experience that when my states of depression are above “the line” (a threshold which is the difference between hope and hopelessness) that I am more ABLE to respond to positive stimuli. Intellectually I know, that even in states of hopelessness, that the chemistry of my brain, will vary it’s way back to a state above “the line” – but that is the only hope than I can muster at these times. Medication helps me, as has participation therapy (CBT). When my state of depression is above “the line” I am more apt to, not only respond to, but to create positive stimuli for myself. However, unless in my lifetime, the specific chemistry of the brain that is at the root cause of clinical (major) depression is identified and arrested, nothing will “cure” me. Though there is enough that I can do for myself (medication and therapy) to live a life worth living, for me, and for the sake of my loved ones. Self advocacy is a key!

May 4, 2011 at 10:32 am
(6) William Higgins says:

I read John and Marty’s comments. Both very good and interesting. Steve is just quoting religious garbage that just keeps alot of people in depression and bondage to depression in my humble opinion.
I myself have received alot of benefit from positive thinking and CBT after suffering 14 years of depression. The later years have been much better. I agree with Marty and Steve. It’s a combination approach. Not just one or two things. Medicine, CBT, developing more positive and rational thinking, changing you life circumstances, changing your diet, support from others and developing healthy relationships. IT’s a struggle, and like Marty said, we are never over it and totally healed. But that is not to say that we can’t make improvements. It hurts my heart that so many are paralyzed so much that they cannot or will not get back up and start. Good luck to you all w this.

February 25, 2009 at 5:23 pm
(7) joe says:

when it comes to the blues, I use a host of tools: cbt, prayer, mindfulness and insight meditation (reason I like buddhism is its attention to our thought processes on emotions)), loving kindness meditation (esp useful having come out of a 2 yr relationship)
journalling, taking care via exercise, reading positive books, social support…to me there is no just ONE tool, but a blend of such which works best

February 25, 2009 at 8:58 pm
(8) iamonewithhim says:

I agree with the comment about clinical depression – bipolar – if you are in a major depression mode or manic it is very hard to get back up to positivity until you have been able to calm yourself down. But I also don’t agree that everything we think about cauwses are conditions – did Jesus think about the cross and was that why he was crucified; or does a Down Syndrome baby think about being born deformed while he’s in the uterus and that’s why he comes out like that; or – as with what happened with my son – and the positive thinking church I belong to says – my negative thoughts and feelings caused my son to be murdered – if I hadn’t felt something was wrong that day – nothing would have happened to him.

Sorry, I just don’t believe the creation will ever be greater than the creator and if all of these positive thinking people are correct and state that our thoughts can be controlled and we can control our life – than why aren’t they still alive – teaching and healing?

February 26, 2009 at 2:50 am
(9) gerry says:

If I’m having a day where I have a don’t have a “give a shit attitude” vesus “I wish I were dead” day, then it is a good day.

February 26, 2009 at 7:36 pm
(10) gerard says:

I know this is not a forum to post organizations or particular physicians in the field of depression and brain research, so I won’t give specific names. I will say that hopefully in the future a more complete diagnosis of depression and other mental illnesses will begin with a brain scan.

February 26, 2009 at 10:25 pm
(11) Christine says:

Many more things influence reality than my thoughts, not the least of which are everyone else’s thoughts. Maybe the thoughts we must pay attention to are not the thoughts that occurred before a given event, but those in response to the event.

And I agree as to brain scans (have just begun reading about them, fascinating stuff). There is so incredibly much that isn’t known about our brains–doesn’t it make sense to actually look at them functioning if we want to learn something about them? This is particularly true if we propose powerful treatments: what EXACTLY are we trying to do with this or that drug?

February 27, 2009 at 1:38 am
(12) Jean4 says:

What gave the church permission to tell this lady who gave birth to a mentally retarded child that he/she was born murdered by the mother’s negative thinking? The church itself needs to receieve a lengthy cognitive behavior therapy, no kidding here! This poor woman does not sound too good here and for the church to feed more negative messages towards here will lead her go haywire! Wake up lady and leave this church for your own good! I may sound hypervigilante here due to the hard and cold truth that I, myself, was told by my previous religion education teachers (nuns and priests) that I was born deaf because I am being punished for something!!! Took a long time to recover with the help from a good therapist and undergoing cognitive behaviorial therapy. Do not give up!

February 27, 2009 at 1:38 am
(13) Jean4 says:

What gave the church permission to tell this lady who gave birth to a mentally retarded child that he/she was born murdered by the mother’s negative thinking? The church itself needs to receieve a lengthy cognitive behavior therapy, no kidding here! This poor woman does not sound too good here and for the church to feed more negative messages towards here will lead her go haywire! Wake up lady and leave this church for your own good! I may sound hypervigilante here due to the hard and cold truth that I, myself, was told by my previous religion education teachers (nuns and priests) that I was born deaf because I am being punished for something!!! Took a long time to recover with the help from a good therapist and undergoing cognitive behaviorial therapy. Do not give up!

March 6, 2009 at 5:36 pm
(14) Deb says:

Even though the research doesn’t seem to back it up, I have to agree with the other posters that your thoughts CAN shape how you feel, and influence the course of depression. However, I don’t think that changing your thinking alone is the cure. I was diagnosed in 2000, and am stil on anti-depressants. I started with meds, and found that once my brain chemistry was “fixed” I was better able to address the negative thinking patterns I had developed. Now I can recognize when a depression is starting, and I am better able to change the thoughts to be more positive. I don’t think I could do that without the combination of meds and therapy. And I think that having the meds even when I’m not FEELING depressed enables me to stop a depression before it takes hold. My faith in God also helps immensely.

There is also a wonderful book on this that helped me–Breaking The Patterns Of Depression by Michael D. Yapko. I highly recommend it, as it helped me to break the negative thought cycles.

May 4, 2011 at 11:00 am
(15) david baldwin says:

I believe that you cannot have a feeling withoout a thought attached. Therefore, if I don’t like the way I feel, I must look at what I am thinking. Challenge those thoughts and find a way to reframe in the most positive but realistic light. Is the glass half empty or half full? Both statements are equally true. But which one works better?

May 1, 2013 at 2:01 pm
(16) Peter says:

Yes- we are what we think and life is what you make it. You can think positively or negatively about any situation and your feelings will usually reflect those thoughts. But what I find with depression when it hits is because there is an established brain pattern of cyclical negative thoughts it is very hard to turn it around sometimes- my brain is fighting to avoid the negative and see the positive. It is this distorted negative thinking that can actually cause you physical pain because it hurts to be in that frame of mind. That said some medications do help a lot -especially the ones that treat mood and related feelings.

April 23, 2014 at 11:01 am
(17) JJ says:

Tried the “miracle” of CBT, all it ever did was annoy me, almost to the point of violence. The only thing that I’ve found that truly helps, good friends, some small distractions ( hobbies) and a goid psychologist.

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