Charles Thomas: Depression and the Wisdom of Not Knowing

Depression and anxiety are to therapists what colds and flus are to primary care physicians. While therapists have clients who suffer from all sorts of emotional issues, the majority of people who show up at my office door are dealing with some permutation of either depression or anxiety.

The cause of those symptoms are often multiple and varied though. Sometimes problems in a client’s romantic relationship causes them to feel sadness or hopelessness. Other times, frustrations at work or being denied a long hoped for promotion precedes melancholy. Some folks become anxious after suffering the loss of a loved one, while others start with anxiety that is specific and limited and then one day it metastasizes to every area of their lives.

The reality is that all of us will have to deal with depression and anxiety at some point in our lives. Research suggests over the course of our lives, 20 percent of us will meet the criteria for a depressive disorder while a whopping 28 percent of us will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder.

While there are many theories about the causes of depression and anxiety, the cognitive theory is the most studied and supported psychosocial understanding of why we get depressed or anxious. The cognitive theory posits that at the core of both depression and anxiety lies insidious negative thinking biases.

Negative thinking biases are automatic negative assumptions we make about ourselves, the world, and other people. Often these negative thoughts happen so quickly and unconsciously that we are not even aware we are having them. 

For example, last week after we’d gotten an inch or so of snow overnight, I went outside to clean the snow off my car before going in to work. After brushing off the accumulated snow, I turned on my windshield wipers only to have the driver’s side wiper partially detach and wiggle around my windshield like a defiant toddler. Frustrated, I got out of the car to fix it and as I did I said out loud, “well, there goes my day.”

Actually I said something worse than that, but this is a family publication. But do you see what I was doing to myself there?

I had to deal with a wonky windshield wiper very early in my day and had told myself because that happened, the rest of my day was going to be just as awful as the first couple hours had been.

But was that true? Did the frustration I felt early that morning really have to ruin the rest of my day? Did it have any causal impact on what would happen to me during the rest of my day? Of course not. But because I had automatically and unconsciously made a negative assumption, I was setting myself up to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Making a habit of negative assumptions can often leads a person to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and depressed.

So what can we do to fight back against this very human tendency to make unhelpful negative assumptions about our lives?

My favorite technique to fight negative bias is one that I call being agnostic. The term agnostic is often associated with people who are unsure whether God exists or not. Agnostics are people who question things that many of us just take for granted. Being an agnostic thinker means developing greater consciousness of the many things that we don’t know about our world. For example, we often tell ourselves that we know exactly why our spouse said something harsh to us, or why our boss didn’t praise us after a big project, but the truth is we often don’t know why things like this happen.

Sure, we make assumptions, but without evidence to back up those assumptions, what we really have is nothing save our feelings, and our feelings have a tendency to be wrong at least half the time.

Being more agnostic in our thinking means being more humble and questioning the assumptions that we make about the world. It means not believing everything we think, especially when we make negative assumptions based more in our emotions than on facts.

There is wisdom in admitting we don’t know. Not knowing helps us keep an open mind and it protects us from the kind of thinking that leads to depression. As I get older, I’ve come to see the list of things I don’t know only seems to grow and grow with each passing year. As the novelist Mark Z. Danielewski wrote, “maturity, one discovers, has everything to do with the acceptance of ‘not knowing.'”

While a cure for depression and anxiety remains stubbornly out of reach, becoming an agnostic thinker and questioning the assumptions we make about the world is most certainly good behavioral medicine. While an apple a day is said to keep the doctor away, doubting our negative assumptions each day can be an effective way to keep the therapist away as well.

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.