“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” by Jeremy Dean.
Full disclosure: If you buy the book through the link, it won’t cost you any more, but I’ll get a few pennies. But my main motivation for doing this is to understand the book properly. What follows is my summary of the chapter.
[Quick interjection from Sheila. This chapter deals with mental illnesses, which tend to be misunderstood by the general public. Clinical depression is not the same as feeling a bit down. Clinical depression is to the blues as a bit of a breeze is to a hurricane. There are similarities BUT! If you, or someone close to you is suffering, please, please get much, much better help than this blog post.]
People often joke that “They’re really OCD about their kitchen,” but genuine OCD is a nightmare. Still, it’s almost like a sensible habit gone ballistic: most of us would rather like to be cleaner, tidier and more hygienic and punctual, as long as it doesn’t take over our lives.
In pop psychology, Tourette’s syndrome is associated with involuntary swearing, but only 10% of sufferer do that. They feel an urge building and building until they twitch – say, stabbing out an elbow. It’s as compulsive as OCD, and the two things often go together. They’re both linked to the basal ganglia, deep in the brain, and drugs help both. These tics are sort-of extreme habits, like OCD, only they’re social habits, like raising the eyebrows in greeting.
Perhaps surprisingly, psychological therapy also helps. First you have to become aware of the tic. Then you have to try to work out what triggers it (it could be external, like computer games, or internal, like thinking about Batman). The idea is to catch it before the urge becomes irresistible. Then you do something else instead. If you’re about to jerk your head to one side, tense your neck muscles.
That works for habits too.
Of course you have to stick at it, which isn’t easy. But in one study, over half of the children with Tourette’s managed an improvement. You’d think an adult would find it easier to battle a chocolate habit, wouldn’t you?
Clinical depression is partly the result of habitual thoughts. Depressed people tend to believe that their problems are a) all their fault b) permanent and c) unfixable. E.g., I lost my job because I’m useless, therefore I will never find another job, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Optimistic people tend to believe the opposite – I lost my job because of the recession, I’ll get another when the economy picks up if not before, and I’ll find one sooner if I apply for lots of jobs, I’ll be flexible about which jobs, and I’ll get training if necessary.
Perhaps it a good thing that most people believe they’re better drivers than average, more charitable than average and smarter than average. (Depressed people are an exception. They don’t behave worse, they just rate themselves worse – arguable more accurately.) Clearly we can’t all be better than average, but it does tend to protect our self-esteem.
Depressed people also tend to ruminate – to think a lot about how depressed they are – while non-depressed people deal with a bad mood by distracting themselves.
Of course thinking habits aren’t the only cause of depression, but they do illustrate how unhelpful habitual thoughts can be.
When Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is used to treat depression and anxiety, it’s based on challenging the habitual thoughts. Drag them out into the open and take a good look.
“If I don’t do everything perfectly, that means I’m a complete failure at everything. And if anything goes wrong, it’s entirely my fault, always.”
Both these steps are harder than they might sound.
It’s also worth mentioning that some negative thoughts are helpful. Worrying about a problem generally spurs you to go find a solution. Worry about your health -> eat more veggies and less chocolate. Worry about the electric bill -> save up for it. Of course sometimes worry produces very unhelpful actions. Worry about your health -> assume you’re dying soon -> picture the funeral in heartbreaking detail -> drink an entire bottle of rum to forget about it. Worry about the electric bill -> picture yourself living in a cardboard box -> go on a shopping spree to cheer yourself up. Pessimism only works if it produces concrete action instead of abstract misery.
And it’s not at all helpful to take the concrete action to extremes, like checking that you’ve locked the door 20 times instead of once or twice.
If you need help, please reach out for it. Help is available. You don’t have to be stuck in a depressing loop.