So often when we are depressed, we are bombarded with thoughts and voices in our heads. They go around and around and around. They are constant and incessant. The thoughts alone are enough to drive us insane. During the Great Depression of 08, I had a line from the TV show Will and Grace get stuck in my head. It was where Grace had run into Leo on a flight back to New York. She had just changed out of her sweat pants into some nice clothes ready for landing and disembarking. Leo mentioned to Grace how good she looked and then said:

“I’d have picked you for sweats.”

It’s a simple line. Very short. Very innocent, but it played on a loop inside my head for weeks. Constantly. It did not stop. “I’d have picked you for sweats. I’d have picked you for sweats. I’d have picked you for sweats”. I thought I was losing my mind completely. It’s a lot like being in the middle of a noisy shopping centre with the volume of each individual sound being turned to maximum. I wanted to end my life just to stop the noise.

The only way I have found to stop these thoughts is to practise them out. Every thought that comes in, stop, assess, and if it’s in any way negative or repetitive, say to yourself “Stop – No more.”  Every single time. Call a time out. Then replace the thought with something pleasant. It helps to have something pleasant up your sleeve ready for every eventuality.

For instance, when depressed I would experience an immense feeling of guilt. I found that a lot of the thoughts that were bombarding me were thoughts of the past where I had done something wrong or said something stupid. Before my feet even hit the floor in the morning, I would have thought of half a dozen things that I had done badly in the past. So, I started small, I picked on just one thought. Every time I heard myself say in my head ‘you are so stupid’, I immediately said to myself ‘stop, no more’, then I thought of the day my son was born. I thought about my son a lot!! 

At first it was really difficult to remember to stop the thoughts as they were so automatic, but I made it my job to become really vigilant. Soon, after some hard work I was good at catching myself saying “you’re so stupid”, so I started on other thoughts like:

  • “No one loves”
  • “You can’t do this”
  • “You’re a waste of space.” 

The more I did the better I got at it. I practised this skill every day. Every minute of every day. I became ever vigilant with my thoughts. I worked hard, and pretty soon I took back control of my mind. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible. Then, just as I started to make some progress with taking back control of my thoughts, my psychologist shared the circles with me.

The Circles

The circles would have to be one of the most powerful tools in my toolbox. They go like this:

There are three circles, one big and two small.

The Circles - Past|Present|Future
The Past

The first circle is the past. It’s ok to spend a few minutes thinking about what is in this circle, but you don’t want to set up camp and stay there. The circle is smaller to indicate how much time you should spend here. If you spend too much time in this circle you will ruminate on all the bad things that have happened to you and you will become depressed.

The Middle

The middle circle is the present. It is the biggest because this is where we want to spend all of our time. Stay in here as it’s the healthiest and most comfortable circle to be in. Set up camp here.

The Future

The third circle is the future and it is small to indicate that you shouldn’t spend too much time here. It’s ok to spend some time here to make plans or schedule your day, but you don’t want to stay here either. Too much time in the future circle leads to anxiety and worry.

So, the trick of the circles is to spend as much time as possible in the present circle, the big one. This takes practise and commitment. Practise becoming aware of your thoughts, assess which circle they are in, and actively move them to the present circle. The easiest way to do this is think to yourself, what are five things I can see right now? What are five things I can hear? What are five things I can physically feel? And so on. This little exercise brings you back to present circle pretty quickly.

It is so easy when you’re depressed to spend time in both the past and future circles. However, if you take time, patience, commitment and practise, you will find it easier and easier to spend more time in the present circle. Just asking yourself every so often “Which circle am I in right now?” will help you get back to the present, and like any skill, the more you practise the easier it gets.

Practise Good Thinking - Tools

Depression is a tough master. He doesn’t give up control easily or comfortably. If you practise, it is possible to put a dent in his armour by controlling your thoughts. Start little. Just focus on one thought that you have. Call a time out and see yourself jumping back into the present circle. Pretty soon, you will control your thoughts and your mind. You will be calling the shots.

Think of the circles and the time out thinking like a tool in your depression toolbox, when combined with the other ones, it makes one hell of a difference in getting the job done!