Depression is a brutal problem for anyone who faces it but, much like other illnesses, there are things we can choose to do, that help us while we heal and continue the fight.
In this article, we are going to talk about the destructive power of our internal negative feedback loops, why it is important to stop these loops, and how we can go about reversing their debilitating consequences.
What the heck are negative feedback loops?
The human brain is an incredibly efficient negative feedback loop machine. The brain takes negative (or undesirable) events and changes your behavior to alleviate or avoid these same negative events in the future. For example, if when you were a child, you touched a hot stove and burned yourself, you pretty quickly learned not to touch the stove when it is hot. Your brain took the negative feedback (the searing, burning pain), and changed your behavior so that you did not touch the stove again.
Likewise, if you have ever been in a car accident and felt nervous or hesitant about getting behind the wheel of a car again, you’ll notice this same process playing out. Sure you can consciously tell yourself how slim the odds are that something bad will happen again while driving but your brain has already taken the painful or even terrifying feedback that results from a car crash and corrected your behavior by setting off the panic alarm when you contemplate driving or getting into a car.
These negative feedback loops can be very beneficial, but what happens when they go a bit haywire and are not necessarily grounded in reality? Worse yet what happens if the negative feedback does not have a strong factual foundation AND the source of the negative feedback is coming from inside your own brain?
Wait, from inside my own brain? What?
Yep, it is true. Negative feedback loops can and have been an incredibly useful evolutionary tool that has helped ensure the survival of the human race. But even the most useful tools can become weapons if used incorrectly. A hammer, for example, is an extraordinarily useful tool when building a house or doing home repairs. If you take that same hammer and smash it into someone’s skull, however, then that hammer is Exhibit A in your forthcoming murder trial.
In much the same way, we humans tend to incorrectly use a handy tool like a negative feedback loop to disastrous results. Frequently this comes in the form of negative self-talk. Self-talk can be a destructive force, and there is a pretty decent chance you are not even aware of it.
So what is self-talk?
Self-talk is the ongoing stream of thoughts you have in your head and most of the time you might not even notice these thoughts. They are there though, and if they are negative, they can feed right into your brain’s natural inclination towards feedback loops.
If you have depression there is a pretty solid chance you have had thoughts like:
- What’s the point?
- I just don’t feel like it.
- I don’t have the energy.
- I can’t handle this.
- Why do I even bother?
These are precisely the kinds of thoughts that make it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. These are the thoughts that make me not want to go out with friends and have fun. These are the thoughts that also lead to much worse, far darker outcomes.
If you continue to let these automatic and negative thoughts persist unchallenged, it only reinforces them. In other words, if you tell yourself there is no point in even getting out of bed, and you accept it as true, and you stay in bed all day, then it reinforces the belief that there is no point in getting out of bed. When this plays out it only serves to strengthen the belief that staying in bed all day was the right call. This reinforcement, of course, makes it all the more difficult to get out of bed the next time you feel that way.
No judgments, I’ve been there. So here’s the deal:
Our brains can use negative feedback loops for good: ‘Hey don’t play in traffic you could die, ‘ or our brains can use them for bad ‘I’m going to fail at this so why bother trying.’ One of these is incredibly useful and grounded in fact, the other is likely not rooted in reality and can be terribly destructive. The problem is that our subconscious brain often cannot seem to tell the difference.
How to hack feedback loops
The first thing you need to do is observe. You have to begin to notice when these negative thoughts are seeping from your subconscious to your conscious. I’ll be brutally honest here, this phase can take some real effort on your part, and there is a good chance you will get repeatedly tripped up during this period. I promise you though, no matter how many times you get tripped up in this phase it is absolutely worth it to keep trying.
There are a couple of ideas many people use to get into the habit of observing their own thoughts. Some people schedule time in their day where they do nothing else but observe the thoughts that seem to pop into their heads. At the outset, it might be helpful to schedule several times a day where you do nothing else but observe your thoughts.
Another useful trick that works incredibly well for me is to observe my feelings. When I have a feeling, I observe and explore the thoughts that lead to that feeling. For example, if I am feeling hopeless I like to take a moment or two and explore why I feel hopeless. There is a pretty solid chance that any feeling I have probably come from thoughts behind it, that led up to this feeling.
You are not your thoughts
Once you begin to observe your thoughts, you will likely start to get the distinct impression that you are actually somehow disconnected or separated from these thoughts that automatically pop into your mind. They just sort of happen. Think of it this way; I highly doubt anyone has ever thought with any earnest ‘You know what, I think it might be great to be hopeless and soul-crushingly depressed today to the point where I cannot get out of bed.’ Those thoughts are just there, and we frequently just accept them as reality, but why? Admittedly it is easier and more efficient to just accept these thoughts as true, but that in no way makes them accurate.
Let’s say I came up to you on the street and told you I had a bag of magic beans that could instantly make all of your dreams come true and I was more than willing to sell you these beans for $10,000. You’d likely assume I was a con artist and not a terribly good one at that. Or you would think I was seriously disconnected from reality. So why would you bring a healthy amount of skepticism towards me the con artist yet you’re okay accepting your negative thoughts as 100% accurate?
Once you’ve observed your thoughts, challenge them
Scrutinize your own thoughts, be skeptical, question them. Just because it came from your subconscious does not make them infallible. If your negative thoughts are truly beneficial, they will hold up to scrutiny. (You could scrutinize our ‘don’t play in traffic’ example all day, and it will probably hold up.)
But, what about a thought like ‘I can’t do this, I’m just going to fail, so why should I even bother trying?’ There is a pretty good chance this thought will not hold up to even a little bit of scrutiny. For starters, how do you know you can’t do it? There is a pretty good chance that there is not much actual evidence to support the belief that you will fail. In fact, it is possible there is ample evidence to the contrary.
Pro Tip: Avoid your ego
The human ego can sometimes lead us astray here. Deep down, even the most self-deprecating among us rarely believes that we are a liar or a fool. Therefore if you are not a liar or a fool, it is easy to believe that your automatic thoughts simply MUST be true. Here is the thing, you probably are not a liar nor a fool, but your automatic thoughts may still be untrue. That is because, if you recall, you are not your automatic thoughts, those thoughts are separate and apart from yourself, the same person who is neither a liar nor a fool. So, do not let your ego interfere with this stage in the process.
The important takeaway here is that once you begin to notice that these automatic thoughts are not authoritative, they are not your reality, and the barely hold up to scrutiny, so why would you give them any more credence than you would a con man on the street?
Foster positive thoughts
Look, I know, I know, believe me, I’m painfully aware that when things are at their bleakest, it is borderline impossible to see anything even remotely positive about your situation. Rest assured, no matter how bad things seem, there absolutely are positives in your situation.
Don’t believe me? That is fine, several years ago I definitely would not have believed me either, but do me this favor real quick. Take out a pen and paper and start writing down all of the positive things you have going for you. Get back to basics with this. For example, your automatic thought might be ‘there is no point in getting out of bed today.’ Ok, that might be true that there is, in fact, no point in getting out of bed today (spoiler alert: it’s not). If it is true though, that still means you actually have a bed to lay in all day. And that is an example of how basic I’m talking about with this list.
Here’s the deal, the odds are that if you are reading this, then we can assume that you probably have a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in, and a connection to the internet. That is the beginning of your positive attributes list. Your list might only be, ‘I’ve got food, clothing, shelter, a bed, an internet connection and oxygen to breath.’ That might not be enough to make you happy, but it is definitely enough to keep you alive.
You must start forcing your brain to look for the positives. Put it on your calendar if you have to. If you keep forcing your brain to look for the positives, no matter how basic, you will begin to form a habit of finding the positive in even the worst of situations.
Here is why that is awesome
If your brain gets into the habit of always finding the positives, it will improve your mood and make it easier to challenge your negative automatic beliefs. But it will also force your brain to take those small positives and ‘MacGyver’ your way from hopelessness into something even more positive.
In other words, if you force your brain to focus on the positives long enough, it will eventually go looking for positivity on its own. Do this enough times, and eventually, your subconscious mind will go from only finding the negatives (and treating them as reality) to accepting the challenges that legitimately lie ahead and create feasible solutions to these difficulties. In which case you’ve effectively, reversed the entire negative feedback loop.
1. Observe your thoughts
2. Scrutinize your thoughts, openly challenge them
3. Get into the habit of listing any and all positives in every situation
4. Repeat steps 1-3
This process takes time, and it isn’t easy. Give yourself a pass when you stumble (and add the fact that you are willing to try to your list of positives). Keep going working through the process, and eventually, you’ll make it through to the other side.
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