Standing in the Way of Reality

 Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn’s Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders (2012) write about several cognitive disorders and how to overcome them—the sort of bad thinking, if you will, that is common in people who are overwhelmed by depression and anxiety disorders.  Several stand out for me. 

There is “catastrophizing,” which is explained as believing that what has happened will be so horrible, so unbearable, that we simply won’t be able to endure it.

Another problem is what is called “discounting positives.”  This means that we minimize any bit of good news, anything that is going well; there is a tendency to trivialize it, to imagine that it doesn’t really matter, especially in the face of all the horrors that surround us.

Which of course ties in to what the authors call “negative filtering,” where we focus almost exclusively on what is bad, what is awful, what is negative and simply refuse to notice anything that is positive.

On top of this, we suffer from an “inability to disconfirm.”  We immediately reject any evidence, or any arguments that might dare to contradict our negative thinking.  Our negative opinion simply becomes irrefutable; it’s as if we don’t want to hear anything that contradicts what we believe.  We reject as irrelevant any evidence to the contrary.  Our feelings dominate our interpretation of the world around us.  And we are quick to overgeneralize: we will focus on a single incident and globalize it, turning it into evidence of a pattern.  And, as is so entirely human, we will only recognize and pay attention to the data that confirms what we already believe; our negative point of view will become the filter through which we see everything.  We will only notice those things that confirm what we already believe to be so; anything that stands in the way of our negative self-perception will slide off us unnoticed.

While Leahy, Holland and McGinn are focused on the cognitive disorder that afflicts individuals suffering from clinical depression and other disorders, it is easy enough, I think, to see that such ways of perceiving the world can afflict even people who are not depressed.

As we think about the state of the world, it is all too easy to fall victim to this framework of thought.  And the news that we consume on a daily basis is pre-digested to confirm our negative opinions.  Certainly it is the case that we face many problems, ranging from the extremism that seems to afflict all of the Middle East, from ISIS and al Qaida, to the mullahs of Iran and the world’s acquiescence to their attempt to build atomic weapons.  Meanwhile our politicians seem to be complete incompetents unable or unwilling to actually make any effort to solve any of the problems in the world, and instead seem focused only on maintaining their grip on power and muttering platitudes designed to satisfy the itching ears of their constituents while doing nothing to actually make anything better. Demagogues inflame their followers, appealing to the basest instincts of the masses and splitting people asunder as if their goal really were to divide and conquer. 

Depression stands in the way of seeing the world as it is.  It does not help us solve our problems; instead, it makes us give up; it saps our strength. It renders us hopeless and unable to accept any progress or improvement—or that it is possible for things to get better.  Worse, it makes us decide that we don’t even deserve to get better.

We don’t have to give up, or give in to our tendency to depression.

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher wrote, “Life itself is but what you deem it.”  That is, we often don’t see the world as it actually is, but rather a warped version of it filtered through our fears.  Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn in their Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders demonstrate how to use cognitive behavioral therapy which today is widely used to treat depression and other disorders.  The goal of the therapy is to minimize distorted thinking so that people can see their lives more accurately.  Recognizing the most common cognitive distortions as we experience them—the negative filtering, the inability to disconfirm, the discounting of positives, and others—then allows us to rethink our initial conclusions.  When we see ourselves falling to a distortion, we can try to list the facts of the situation, to force ourselves to consider alternative interpretations, to put things in a more complete and more accurate context, and then to choose an interpretation more in line with all the facts, the good along with the bad.  When people free themselves from constant repetitive and solely negative thoughts, they will become less depressed, less anxious, and less angry.  Perhaps some cognitive behavioral therapy would help the rest of us perceive our world, and our fellow human beings, in a better way?

We could choose to focus on the brightness around us, ranging from the fact that no new cases of polio have been found anywhere in Africa in over a year, meaning that another disease is about to join smallpox as a scourge that has been rendered extinct.  Fewer people live in poverty today than ever before in history and all the trends are for the rates of poverty to continue plunging.  Crime rates are also on a downward spiral, along with the incidence of violence in general, including war. 

New technologies, new medical treatments continue to explode into existence around us.  We have explored the solar system, extended our understanding of the fundamental forces of the universe, increased the number of college graduates, lowered the incidence of starvation and suffering, lessened the blight of pollution and diseases, and expanded opportunities everywhere.  Democracy is spreading, human rights are more widely protected than ever before in the world.  Yes, the world has problems and many horrible things are happening, but we should not let our problems define us or distract us so that we miss all the good things that are out there, too.  Just because there are problems doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate good times.

Depression is a mental disorder, not an accurate reflection of reality.