Ask yourself what is going wrong in your life and more likely than not you will very easily call to mind your problems at home, at work, with your health, or your finances. (If anyone tells you their life is perfect and they have no problems, don’t believe them!)
It is so easy to notice our problems because they cause us pain and demand our attention to fix them. If we ignore our problems (which we all do at times), they might get much worse, like for people who have lost their physical sensation of pain and experience complications from unnoticed injuries.
But, did you ever notice that the more you pay attention to problems in your life, the more depressed you feel? In fact, part of clinical depression is a strong tendency to notice and remember failures, faults, loss, and upsetting events. On the flip side, depressed people also tend to be blind to positive aspects of their lives, and this is a habit that cognitive-behavioral therapists help their clients to reverse.
We all have theories about ourselves and the world. We look for information that confirms those theories, whether they be about our self-worth, our political beliefs, or our favorite sports team. Likewise, we tend to ignore information that disproves our theories. We call this bias.
People with depression tend to have theories about themselves like “I’m unlovable” or “I’m a failure,” about the world like, “The world is a horrible place,” and about the future like, “My life is hopeless.” They automatically notice all the events and memories that make these statements true, such as failures at work or in relationships, negative events in the news, or times that people directly put them down.
Cognitive-behavioral therapists encourage their clients to notice positive characteristics about themselves, their successes, people who love them, positive events in their lives, and hopeful opportunities on their horizons. Therapists do not want clients to ignore their problems or unhealthy habits, but instead to give a fairer share of their attention to positive information and strengths.
A favorite group discussion of mine to hold in our treatment center is extremely simple yet very powerful. I provide group members with a paper that simply reads, “Things I am grateful for” and includes several spaces to write a list.
Typically clients mention being alive, loved ones, good times they have had, and opportunities. Clients experiencing severe depression, loss, trauma, and psychosis often find that this exercise lifts their mood and increases their hope. It can even help turn a suicidal person’s attention back to their reasons for living.
What are you grateful for? What do you see?
Mark Reeves received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Florida State University and completed his postdoctoral training at Florida State Hospital. He has published and presented at conferences in the area of personality disorders and has worked with adolescents and adults with severe and persistent mental illness. He is currently employed as a Clinical Supervisor at Apalachee Center.
Big Bend 2-1-1 has listings of all area agencies dealing with these issues. Just dial 211 on your phone.
Apalachee Center can be reached at 1-800-342-0774 for Detox, Crisis or inpatient treatment, and 1-866-472-3941 to schedule an outpatient appointment.
For over half a century, Apalachee Center has been dedicated to helping the individuals and families of North Florida succeed in recovering from emotional, psychiatric, and substance abuse crises. These crises are often painful and frightening, and leave families and individuals feeling as if they are all alone and have nowhere to turn. The Apalachee team is here to help.
DISCLAIMER: Articles can never take the place of in-person psychotherapy, diagnosis, or advice by a licensed healthcare practitioner. If you have a life-threatening emergency, call 911. If you need immediate counseling service, free of charge, and are in the vicinity of Tallahassee, call 211.