5 Lies Depression Tells
... and what you can do to fight back.
Depression can alter how we see the world, ourselves, and others.
"Depressive realism" is the hypothesis that depression can enhance our perceptions.
Yet evidence also suggests that depression can distort our perceptions in a negative direction.
With practice, these distortions can be countered.
The concept of depressive realism is a hypothesis that individuals with depression may see life more accurately than those without. I remember learning of this in college, mentioned as an aside in a course, “depressed people actually see things more realistically.” As a person who has experienced depression, this dispirited me. Depression is an expert at overshadowing me with sad perspectives on myself, others, and the world.
It also led me to ask: In treating this condition are mental health professionals seeking to teach people how to delude themselves? Are people who are not depressed out of touch with reality? Is depression the most reasonable response to our times?
Research into depressive realism is drenched in mixed results. How do you measure a person’s sense of reality? A meta-analysis of the topic found a small trend in favor of depressive realism. This said, the authors illuminated difficulties in the measurements used in the study as well as in external validity (Moore and Fresco, 2012).
A more recent (2019) study investigated this notion of how depression affected future expectations (and whether those future expectations were correct) by asking depressed and healthy participants to gauge how they would feel in four days and then looking into how participants would rate their mood at that time (Zetsche et al).
Unsurprisingly, depressed participants imagined themselves feeling lower in four days than healthy controls. Depressed participants also had a trend of feeling better than they imagined they would after the four days ended as well, healthy controls more accurately estimated how they would feel supporting a concept that cognitive behavioral therapists have preached for decades: Depression lies.
While the jury may still be out on depressive realism, the cognitive distortions that accompany depression are well-founded. For a small number (Gaudiano et al, 2016), this change can reach a level of psychosis leading a person to experience depressive-congruent delusions and/or hallucinations. Although not always to this extreme, in almost all cases depression brings with it some changes in thinking.
Depression’s deception is insidious. What follows are five guideposts that point to its trickery.
1. When Depression Makes Sweeping Statements
Depression loves generalizations. It thrives on thoughts like “no one likes you,” “you can’t do anything right” and “everything is bad.” This lie breathes words like “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing.” Depression can convince you that an entire lot is ruined before you’ve even had the chance to look through it.
What You Can Do About It: Look for exceptions. Even one exception will start to untie the web that depression has woven. So, for example, if depression says “no one likes you” ask yourself if you can think of anyone who has ever liked you in the history of your life. Chances are you can think of at least one. Rarely are generalizations true.
2. When Depression Tries to Predict the Future
Depression can’t tell the future. Of course not, right? Well, depression is quite good at convincing us that it can. With murmurs like “You will never learn to cook” or “Don’t ask her out, she will definitely say no” depression can push us to believe we have failed before we have even taken the shot.
What You Can Do About It: Ask yourself about the topic at hand. Depression is probably telling you the worst possible scenario. Write that down. Now, try to think of two other possibilities. You might look for the best possible scenario or a middle-ground scenario. Remind yourself that only time will tell which (if any) are correct.
3. When Depression Harps on You About What You "Should" Have Done
If there is anything depression likes more than sketching you a terrible, horror-filled fate, it’s looking back at the past and telling you about all you’ve done wrong. Depression tends to act like it knows what would have happened if you would have made any choice other than what you did, and it will usually tell you that whatever would have happened is better than what occurred. Truth is, depression has no idea what would have happened if you took a different turn.
What You Can Do About It: Remember these two words: hindsight bias. Just like we can’t tell the future, we don’t know the future while we are in the past. Depression might like to have you judge yourself for what there was no way for you to have known.
4. When Depression Tells You It Can Read Minds
Depression loves to tell you what other people are thinking. Usually, the message is that people are thinking negatively about you.
What You Can Do About It: How much time do you spend thinking about any given person? Chances are, it’s just a fraction. If you are worried that someone might have something on their mind about you, consider asking. That’s the only way we can read minds.
5. When Depression Says That Everything Will Be Bad Forever
Depression’s preferred environment is a sort of fatalistic landscape full of awful predictions and negativity to absurdity. This can feel totally deflating.
What You Can Do About It: Practice flexibility. Rarely do all things fall into such a fixed space, so look for a middle ground. Depression might tell you it plans to set up camp and stick around, but many people recover.
In sum, depression can place itself like a fun house mirror. Yet no one is their depression. With practice, you can catch depressive thinking in its tracks and see through its illusions.
Jennifer Gerlach, LCSW - website
Gaudiano, B. A., Weinstock, L. M., Epstein-Lubow, G., Uebelacker, L. A., & Miller, I. W. (2016). Clinical characteristics and medication use patterns among hospitalized patients admitted with psychotic vs nonpsychotic major depressive disorder. Annals of clinical psychiatry: official journal of the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists, 28(1), 56-63.
Moore, M. T., & Fresco, D. M. (2012). Depressive realism: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 32(6), 496-509.
Venkatesh, S., Moulds, M. L., & Mitchell, C. J. (2018). Testing for depressive realism in a clinically depressed sample. Behaviour Change, 35(2), 108-122.
Zetsche, U., Bürkner, P. C., & Renneberg, B. (2019). Future expectations in clinical depression: Biased or realistic?. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 128(7), 678.