April 24, 2024

Identifying Depressive Thoughts

Those on the depressive spectrum have a tremendously difficult time discerning their true thoughts from their depression. Those in the grips of a depressive episode, major depressive disorder, or persistent depressive disorder (otherwise known as dysthymia) will often ruminate about real or perceived failures. Further complicating the problem is that depressive thinking is often automatic, especially for those with long-standing depression. In fact, this can be hardest for those with dysthymia as they believe that depressive thinking is their true thinking as these thoughts have reigned for so long.

Here I’ll be talking about how to identify your depressive thoughts. We won’t focus on changing the thoughts in this post. Wellness is best done brick-by-brick, skill-by-skill, so let’s take this in stride. This skill can also be useful for those who are often sad or find themselves stuck in rumination. It’s part mindfulness and part understanding the common nature of depressive thinking.


This information comes from The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression by Dr. William Knaus. His book is incredibly thorough in terms of applying CBT lessons and methodology to understanding, treating, and changing depression and its various symptoms. It’s easy to understand, so you don’t need the DSM under your belt to mine gold from this manual.

Whether you’re trying to lessen your own depression or better understand effective treatment for this condition, I highly suggest giving this book a read.

Depression Isn’t an Active Choice

If you have depression, whether it be clinical or subthreshold (just below the limit of a mental illness), then you’re probably sick and tired of people telling you to stop thinking those negative thoughts. Just stop being lazy. Just stop laying in bed. Just stop with this whole depression thing.

It’s maddening and doesn’t help the real problem. Let me start by saying that depression itself isn’t an active choice. Depressive thoughts are often automatic and manifest without conscious effort. The average human has thousands upon thousands of thoughts throughout the day. It’s no surprise that they reflect the texture of your mental wellness.

What I’m trying to say is that depression isn’t your fault.

Depression isn’t an active choice. It has a biological basis and can be very difficult to overcome and cope with once it’s upon you. However, being able to identify when you’re thinking depressively can help you make better choices throughout the day.

The Texture of Depression

What I’m about to describe are thoughts you’ve likely encountered many times before. You might be trapped in this thinking right now. While the specific thoughts will be personal, the texture of depressive thinking is often a shared experience for those who suffer from this condition. You will often draw into yourself, lose touch with the outside world, and depressive ruminations will typically entail:

  • How bad you feel
  • What plagues you and/or who has wronged you
  • Self-criticism, self-blame, hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, etc
  • Anxiety, shame, guilt, anger
  • Always and never thinking (I’ll always be depressed, I’ll never get better, I’ll always be awful, I’ll never have the life I want, etc)
  • Only considering the bad of any situation, rarely recognizing the good or neutral

How do you feel after reading that? If you need a moment to collect yourself, then just breathe and give yourself a moment.

We run into a chicken and egg dynamic here. Does depression fuel these thoughts, or do these thoughts fuel depression? Honestly it’s cyclical where depression makes you feel bad, which drives these thoughts, which makes you more depressed, which makes you draw more into your ruminations, and so on and so on.

Recognize the Depressive Thoughts

We’ve covered what depressive thoughts normally look like. Let’s go further and empower you to better recognize these thoughts as they occur. Before I go forward, please remember that you don’t need to be perfect. Recovery is about getting better, not about being perfect. You will get better as long as you stick with it.

The following are clues that will tell you if the thoughts are depressive in nature. I suggest you write the thoughts down. This will make it easier to recognize the drama playing in your head while also making it easier to see if you endorse these ideas or if it’s only your mental illness talking.

Repetitive and Cyclical

Depressive thoughts are often repetitive. You’ll find yourself having the same down thoughts for hours, days, weeks, or even years. If you find yourself constant fixating on how one thing is terrible or how one thing made your life unbearable, then it’s likely depressive thinking.

Distinctively Pessimistic

You don’t have to be a glass half full type of person all the time, but depressive thinking is often unequivocally pessimistic. Sometimes things are really that bad, but really pay attention to the thought. Is the content actually that bad, or has depression cast a shadow over your thoughts?

Typical Themes

Depressive thinking is variable, but it usually boils down to themes like hopelessness, helplessness, self-blame, or worthlessness. If you find yourself having thoughts like this (especially if they are persistent), then you’re likely in the grips of depression.

Only Misery

Depression often creates all-or-nothing thinking that is overly simplistic and generalized. You’ll often feel that the world is only misery and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. If this sounds familiar, then that’s because it’s depressive thinking casting a trick on you. Life is often more neutral with shades of good and bad instead of just good or just bad.

Catastrophic Consequences

Depressive thinking makes you believe that everything will be catastrophic and terrible. Forecasting the results of an event is common to all people, especially when it’s something important like an interview, public speaking, or any other endeavour. It’s OK to be worried, but if you only see the worst possible outcome (making mountains of molehills, catastrophizing), then you might be caught in the web of depression.

Consider Your Mood

For most people, depression is episodic. Otherwise known as euthymia, this is a regulation of your mood that naturally occurs and often breaks up the depression (remember, this happens often, but not to everyone). If you notice that your thoughts are clearer and absent of all the previous entries here, then you can start to understand how depression is affecting your thoughts.

What Now?

Now that you understand how depressive thought often presents itself you can begin to separate it from your healthier thoughts. I suggest writing down your thoughts along with when they happened and what caused them. This can help you better understand the thoughts and what triggers them. Give this time as soon you’ll find it easier to identify and dispel the thoughts as they come over you.


I hope this guide helped you identify your depressive thoughts. This can be a very difficult condition that seems to affect every thought. By understanding where your thoughts are coming from, you can walk closer to the path of wellness and improve your life. Give this a try, just examine your thoughts, and see how much this can help you. Be safe, be well, and just put one foot in front of the other.

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