• Jim Denning

Negative Thoughts

Stop and smell the flowers

One of the greatest misconceptions about depression and anxiety is that there must be an identifiable cause. When I would break protocol and tell someone I had depression their predictable reflex reply was “Why?” “What do you have to be depressed about?”

Their assumption was a simple cause and effect response. If there is an effect, i.e. depression or anxiety, there had to be an identifiable cause. This is understandable in that a person without anxiety or depression will only experience fear (anxiety) or sadness (depression) in response to an event. For example, someone who does not suffer from anxiety or depression will experience anxiety at the prospect of a job loss and subsequent depression after they are terminated from employment. Or closer to home, they will experience anxiety when their doctor calls them in for a follow-up on a screening of some sort. Perhaps they went in to have a lump checked and the receive a call from the doctor’s office. The person who calls to schedule the follow-up tells them “the doctor saw something of concern and would like to do more tests.” This phone call will generate anxiety in just about anyone. Then depending on the outcome of the test that person will experience depression or elation.

Let’s examine what happened here. A person receives a phone call that they potentially have a life threating condition. This information (triggering event) causes their limbic system to release neurotransmitters that activate the fight, flight or freeze protocols. Unfortunately, it will be a week at least until this person knows their diagnosis so they cannot fight, flee or freeze…all they can do is wait. While they are waiting for the news their limbic system, to protect the body, starts generating scenarios (negative thoughts) in preparation of how to react to the news if it is bad. Why does the limbic system generate only negative thoughts? Simple, if the news is good there is no threat. The limbic system is designed to respond to threats first. If there is good news then that’s just a bonus.

So what happens if our limbic system perceives a threat where none exists? What happens if our formative years were spent in an unsafe or abusive environment? We should actually expect our limbic system to “prepare for the worst” because that is what has always surrounded us. What if we simply have more negative neurotransmitters than positive ones? The answer is simple, in order to protect us our brain will generate negative scenarios in preparation for anticipated threats that may never come.

Why can we not rid ourselves of negative thoughts? Because our limbic system perceives the entire world as a threat. In preparation for that threat, our brain will play out scenarios in an effort to protect us. These thoughts will manifest in us not wanting to leave the house, not wanting to “people”, just wanting to stay in bed because to quote Furiosa from Mad Max…”Out here everything hurts.” If we follow this to its logical conclusion, we play out our future in a countless number of ways. Each scenario leads to our misery, so the reasonable question to ask is “why should I continue.”

This was the cycle I was in. I saw an infinite number of possibilities for my future, but none of them resulted in my happiness. Then it hit me, I was doing it backwards. If my limbic system was generating the negative thoughts, I should not address the thoughts, I should address the limbic system.

The answer to long term happiness, which I have now, was so simple. Teach my limbic system the world is not a (completely) dangerous place. Each day teach my limbic system there is joy and beauty in the world. Find beauty in every thing and everyone. Over time, my limbic system no longer saw the world as a threat and the negative thoughts faded away.