The Thinker Sunset

Metacognition is a beautiful word for “thinking about thinking“. We all do it, but how we do it can mean the difference between making depression worse and overcoming it.

When thoughts pop into our heads, they usually pop back out. But sometimes we attach great importance to them. If you do, explains Aaron Brinen, assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, you’ll pay them a lot more attention. Then these thoughts begin to mean something; you may even feel that they portend something.

Let’s say you’re preparing for a job interview and find yourself thinking: This is going to get bad. I’m really going to make a fool of myself. If you give this thought too much weight, you may take it as a prediction of the future rather than just a normal nervous reaction. On the other hand, if you have a positive thought – I am really prepared; I will handle this interview — you might dismiss it by thinking something like that Oh, that’s ridiculous; I’m never prepared.

Read more: People underestimate the joy of sitting and thinking, a study suggests

What are cognitive distortions?

When these types of negative thoughts, often called “cognitive distortions” by experts, become a habit, they can lead to or exacerbate depression. There are several types of cognitive distortions. One is absolutist thinking (I’m never prepared oremany are against me). Another is the discount from the positive (I really didn’t deserve this promotion; I just got lucky). Overgeneralization is another kind. For example, when you think that making a single mistake means you’re a total loser.


A study published in Nature Human Behavior last year looked at how people use language on social media and found that people who were diagnosed with depression are more likely than a random sample of users to use language that reflects these cognitive distortions, including negative and absolutist language.

In other words, how you think about your thinking and how you frame your thoughts is an essential factor in mental health. But it works both ways. If thinking about thinking can send you into a depressive spiral, the right kind of thinking about thinking can help you get out.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Helping people deal with thoughts more productively is at the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy introduced in the 1960s by Aaron Beck. Brinen, who worked with Beck to develop a branch of CBT called recovery-oriented cognitive therapy (CT-R), points out that one form of metacognition is noticing that you are constantly summarizing your thoughts. And if you notice your thoughts, you can change them.

“If you learn one way of thinking, you can learn a different way,” he says. “There’s a process of relearning those associations, learning a different relationship to those thoughts, which is ultimately metacognition.” There are many varieties of CBT, but most deal with metacognition in one way or another.

“A lot of the work is about deciding how consumed you are going to be by those thoughts,” Brinen says.

Read more: Nostalgia and thinking about the future can be good for you

Retrain these thoughts

Paying more attention to your metacognition can be a good practice for maintaining mental health, even if you are not clinically depressed. “We all have times when we’re nervous,” Brinen says. “A lot of us struggle a little, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have a mental disorder.” At times like these, a little bibliotherapy can help.

While there is a lot of trash, he warns, there are also some useful books. Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think by Christine Padeski and Dennis Greenberger and The Feel Good Handbook. by David Burns are two he thinks are worth checking out. But, he says, keep in mind that if the problem is persistent or getting worse, it’s time to seek professional help.

Read more: What is anxiety and how can anxiety defeat us?

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