Many of us look in the mirror and find something to criticize, whether it’s belly flab, bad skin, or a poor outfit choice. But barraging ourselves constantly with that kind of criticism can have pretty heavy consequences. According to a new study in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, the mean way we speak to ourselves, called negative self-talk, could be to blame for recurrent depression episodes in people who are prone to depression.
Michelle Riba, MD, associate director of the Depression Center and director of the PsychOncology program for the Cancer Center at the University of Michigan, studies what happens when negativity becomes the default lens through which we view ourselves, a phenomenon called “negative self-referential processing.” While we’re all prone to experiencing self-doubt, people who are developing depression may think negative thoughts about themselves—they’re fat, worthless, ugly, or stupid—with increasing frequency. When the mean thoughts go on long enough, it can trigger a depressive episode.
“People who have depression already have a very negative sense of self,” Dr. Riba says. “When someone starts to make these statements over and over again, we want to help them figure out what they can do about it.”
To avoid having this negative thinking pattern become chronic, Dr. Riba suggests surrounding yourself with positive people, and working with your healthcare provider to figure out what could be behind your tendency toward this negative thinking pattern. “Sometime it’s good for people to talk about these thoughts out in the open and say them out loud,” she says. “As doctors we can help re-frame and rephrase the thoughts, and figure out where they’re coming from.”
As the holidays arrive and seasons change, it’s likely that many people will feel their mood change or worsen. (These are signs you could have seasonal affective disorder.) It’s especially important during these high-stress times to surround yourself with warm and helpful relationships. “People around us can often feed our insecurities, and when problems arise, it’s typically because we’re around critical people,” Dr. Riba says. “Avoid the friends, family members, and situations you know might trigger negative thinking.”
Overcoming depression and the thinking patterns that lead to it may require the help of a mental health professional. When negative thoughts begin to get the upper hand, seek out the services of a mental health professional. To find one in your area, visit the website of the American Psychiatric Association and enter your zip code in their Psychiatrist Locator.