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Feeling down? This is why changing your thoughts can make you feel better

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When someone has been feeling down for a while, we say: he or she is feeling depressed. But according to the founding fathers of cognitive therapy, we might just as well say they are thinking themselves depressed. The way we think has a big influence on or emotional wellbeing. 

Distinguishing thoughts from reality

When young psychiatrist David Burns heard one of his teachers say ‘thinking differently leads to feeling differently’, he thought to himself: ‘that’s bullsh**.’ But the more patients he treated, the more he found out the truth in that quote. Even patients who were so depressed they didn’t want to live anymore, started feeling better when they learned how to distinguish their thoughts from reality. A woman with a severe depression he treated, was convinced her life had been worthless – until she made a simple list of her achievements. It opened her eyes. 

Burns wanted to help more people than he could see in real life, so he wrote the book Feeling Good – which became a huge best seller and made cognitive therapy a wide known, successful form of therapy. These days, it’s one of the most used treatments for depression. 

The power of thoughts

Did Burns find his treatment useful in his own life? In his TED Talk, he tells about the birth of his son. The young boy couldn’t breathe, so his breathing had to be stimulated artificially. Burns was in complete distress. He thought: no matter what I have been taught, this situation is so severe, it’s not about what I think

Yet, when he started writing down his thoughts, he discovered that even in this severe situation, his thoughts hadn’t been realistic. In his mind, he was thinking years ahead – convinced the future of his son was doomed, until he realised: I have to stop predicting the future and just be there for my son. The power of thoughts had proven to be just as strong for Burns as for his patients. 

Text: Dorien Vrieling - Photo: Action Vance