Cognitive Chemo

Cognitive Chemo is a term I’m using to symbolize a simple strategy for combatting depression. Rather than minimize the severity of cancer, my hope is to raise consciousness when it comes to acknowledging the undeniable severity of mental illness.

Depression is a flurry of negativity that doesn’t let up. It can last for days, months, years,  and lifetimes. In many cases, depression is a conjunction of biochemical and cognitive pathologies. While the biochemical causes generally require medication to increase levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, e.g., serotonin and dopamine, the cognitive causes can be addressed with mental exercises that decrease negative thoughts while increasing positive thoughts. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one approach to changing thought patterns for the better. I spent some time in a “Cog” Program and found it to be helpful. However, like any type of exercise, if not practiced consistently, the results will be minimal.

For many of us who live with depression, it is a daily challenge to perform the simplest tasks. Even more frustrating, there are days when we feel “pretty good,” when we catch a glimpse of what “normal” people feel like. And while these periods of elevated mood can last days, and sometimes weeks, we inevitably fall back into depression and the “depressed thinking” that is it’s hallmark. So the question beckons, “How does one combat these negative thoughts?” Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) espouses the idea that changing our thoughts and behaviors leads to improved emotions and outcomes. In general, I’ve found this model to be effective. When I’ve challenged negative thoughts, such as, “I’m a total loser,” and taken an action opposite of what depression would have had me do,  I’ve often slowly and laboriously climbed out of the hole of depression. Recently, in speaking with a mental health professional, a new idea was added to my repertoire of anti-depression strategies. One that, while simplistic, I believe holds great promise.

I was told that when I have a negative thought, take for example one of my standards, “I’m a shitty dad,” I need to counter that thought with a “flurry” of positive thoughts. And if initially I can’t come up with a positive thought, to begin with the exact opposite of the negative thought. So in my example of thinking of myself as a “shitty dad,” I would counter that thought with, “I’m an amazing dad.” And then without letting up, create a string of positive thoughts. “I’m an involved dad.” “I’m a loving dad.” “I’m an engaged dad.” And so on and so forth. The idea being that if we keep hitting the negative thought with a flurry of positive thoughts, we whittle away at the negative thought shrinking it, and possibly even destroying it.

As I thought about this strategy, I couldn’t help but think of the process of chemotherapy for cancer patients. Except instead of working to stop the spread of cancer cells, thereby shrinking or destroying a tumor, we are using a similar cognitive process to destroy pathological thoughts. The term “Cognitive Chemo” sprung to mind, and I think it’s a perfect fit. Depressive thoughts multiply like the cells of a tumor, and healing requires disrupting that pattern. And similar to chemotherapy for cancer patients, cognitive chemotherapy for the depressed must be ongoing and consistent in its application in order to stop the growth and spread of negative thoughts.

In no way am I seeking to minimize the severity and often tragic consequences of cancer. I am however, attempting to improve and inform when it comes to our collective thought and response to mental illness. Statistics don’t lie. And when we take into account that suicide is the third leading cause of death, comparing mental illness to cancer is by no means a stretch.

Cognitive Chemo, the practice of consistently firing positive thoughts at a negative one provides a real possibility at healing. However, it must be practiced daily, and often by the minute, such is the power of depressive thinking. If depressive thoughts are the mental equivalent of a tumor, having a similar prognosis and severity, Cognitive Chemo is one of many ameliorating techniques.

Thus, the combination of effective medication and a technique that shrinks or eliminates our negative thoughts (Cognitive Chemo) provides the possibility of managing mental illness. The reality is that it won’t work for everyone. Sometimes, like chemotherapy, the process of attempting to generate thoughts to combat depressive thinking, takes a toll that is worse than the original negative thoughts. Failing in the effort to generate positive thoughts can take a person deeper into depression. But if we persist in our efforts, the likelihood of minimizing the effects of depressed thinking is significant. We can shrink and even eliminate a negative thought, and thereby improve our quality of life. It’s worth a try.

Stay the course. Keep the faith. You’re a hero.

The Bellowing Angels


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