by John Castle
I remember being eighteen and sitting in my therapist’s office one summer day. I sat in the center of his large couch with my hands folded as he read to me from an old beaten up spiral notebook with several tears, stains, and scribbles that decorated it’s pages. Each page described a fear, a confession, a hatred, a sense of sorrow, all with a tone of dread and hopelessness. I was taken aback by what I was hearing, and a part of me questioned whether the author was being a bit dramatic. It was astonishing to hear the amount of pain the writer of this journal had been in. The only thing though was, this was my journal. I was the one who had filled these pages. All of these fears and frustrations were mine, and I had spent a good portion of my summer that year documenting them in that very notebook. Except, at that moment it was as if these feelings didn’t belong to me at all.
It wasn’t until I mentioned to my therapist that I had been journaling, that he suggested I bring it in during our next session for him to read. If anyone else requested this, I would have viewed it as a breach of privacy, but considering that he was my psychologist--whose job it is to get deep in my mind--I figured that allowing him to read my rambles would give him the chance to see the specific thoughts and feelings that cross my mind during my day to day life. While I assumed this would give him greater insight into how my mind works, what I wasn’t expecting was that I, myself, would gain a greater insight as well. There was something about listening to words I had written come through the mouth of someone else that made me register them in a different way. As I mentioned before, I found myself questioning the validity of these statements. I knew that I was feeling these things, there was no denying that, but what I wasn’t so sure of was if that meant that these feelings were real. I wasn’t so sure if I was truly as hopeless and lost as I had described myself to be. What I was sure of though was that I felt much lighter walking out of that meeting than I did walking in. It was as though I had been snapped out of my sorrowful state. Now granted, I wasn’t exactly singing and dancing my way out to the parking lot, but that blanket of depression that I had been wearing for months suddenly seemed less heavy.
This experience is one I often look back on because I believe it is quite revealing. It gives us a glimpse into the mechanics of depression and what exactly it is about writing that can help us free ourselves from our negative thoughts. It’s through writing that we are given the opportunity to view our thoughts from an objective perspective, allowing us to better tackle the negative ones that send us into a neurotic state.
While there could be much speculation as to where the root of an individual's depression/anxiety stems from, one thing is for certain, when we are in the middle of our neurotic states, our thoughts are what add fuel to our internal fire. This brings us to one of the core ideas behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy originated back in the 1960s and operates from the idea that if you can change how you think, you can change how you feel. Because of this, C.B. therapists often argue that depression is primarily caused by flawed perception/thought patterns. This is why in his 2014 TEDx Talk, Dr. David D. Burns, a pioneer of CBT and author of the book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (1980), describes anxiety and depression as, “the world’s oldest cons.” By cons he means that these negative thoughts function in a way where they trick us into believing that we should be hopeless and afraid. Therefore, if we can identify the distortions in our thoughts, we can prevent ourselves from being fooled by them.
"It's through writing that we are given the opportunity to view our thoughts from an objective perspective, allowing us to better tackle the negative ones that send us into a neurotic state."
In order to accomplish this cognitive reframing, C.B. therapists have developed various techniques and practices, many of which embrace the act of writing. One of the methods described in Dr. Burns’ above mentioned book, is the “Identify the Distortion,” technique. This can be done by taking a piece of paper and dividing it into three columns. In the first column, list the specific negative thought(s) you are experiencing. When doing this, make sure the thought is worded in a way that is not too abstract, meaning instead of writing something along the lines of, “I feel unlovable,” make it more specific as to why you feel this way. For example, “All my relationships have ended with me being dumped, therefore I am unlovable and probably always will be.”
Once you’ve jotted down that negative thought, move over to the second column and try to list the various cognitive distortions that are present in this statement. In order to identify them, CBT has created a list of the ten most common distortions that are found in negative thought patterns. These distortions consists of “Overgeneralization,” where one views a negative experience as never ending pattern, “Jumping to conclusions,” where you arbitrarily predict that things will turn out badly for you, and “Emotional Reasoning,” where you assume you are what you feel, “I feel unlovable, therefore I must really be unlovable.” These are just a few examples from the list of ten, but I’d argue that each of these are present in the negative thought I listed above.
Now that you have both listed your negative thought(s) and have identified the various distortions in them, you can now move to the third column where you will write your rebuttal. Try to find an argument against these thoughts. For example, “Just because I’ve been broken up with before doesn’t mean that it’s doomed to happen every time. And just because I feel unlovable doesn’t mean that I actually am, it’s normal to feel this way after a breakup, and I have a lot of family and friends who have been very supportive during this time, which shows that there are people out there who love me.” You could carry on with this idea and continue to write as much of a rebuttal as you can think of. This process may seem simple, but I’d press anyone out there to try it the next time they are feeling down. After I myself tried it a few times, I noticed that I felt a very similar feeling to that one I described earlier when leaving my therapist's office. Because of that, this writing exercise is now one of the most valuable items in my toolbox of coping skills.
"It's not to say that we should never experience negative emotions, our wide range of feelings is what makes us human, but with this advantage that writing gives us, we have the opportunity to dissect these thoughts and not become possessed by them."
Dr. Judy Ho, a triple board certified psychologist, once stated that one of the most important lessons she learned during her training was that people often, “look from a thought, instead of at a thought.” She explained that what this means is that when a thought occurs to us, instead of reacting to it in a way of, “oh that’s an interesting thought, I wonder if it’s true, irrational, etc,” we tend to automatically treat it as if it were true and then begin to question what else this must mean for us. So in the case of depressed/anxious thoughts, we often find ourselves working our way down these despair filled spirals.
This is where some of the beauty of writing is held. When we put our thoughts and feelings down on paper they become less abstract. We’re able to view them from a more objective position, which gives us an advantage over them. It’s not to say that we should never experience negative emotions, our wide range of feelings is what makes us human, but with this advantage that writing gives us, we have the opportunity to dissect these thoughts and not become possessed by them.