Metacognition is a fancy word for "thinking about thinking." We all do it, but how we do it can mean the difference between exacerbating depression and getting over it.
When thoughts pop into our heads, they usually pop right back out. But sometimes we invest a lot of importance to them. If you do that, explains Aaron Brinen, assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, you're going to pay much more attention to them. Then these thoughts begin to mean something; you may even feel that they portend something.
Say you're preparing for a job interview, and you find yourself thinking: This is going to go badly. I'm really going to make an idiot of myself. If you give that thought too much weight, you might take it as a prediction of the future rather than just a normal reaction to nerves. On the other hand, if you have a positive thought — I'm really prepared; I'm going to nail this interview — you might discount it, thinking something like Oh, that's ridiculous; I'm never prepared.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
When these kinds of negative thoughts, often called "cognitive distortions" by experts, become habitual, they can lead to or exacerbate depression. There are several kinds of cognitive distortions. One is absolutist thinking (I'm never prepared, or everyone is against me). Another is discounting the positive (I didn't really deserve that promotion; I just got lucky). Overgeneralizing is another type. For example, when you think 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'd been diagnosed with depression were 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 pull you out.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Helping people deal more productively with thoughts is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy pioneered 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're constantly generalizing 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 these associations, learning to have a different relationship towards these thoughts, which is ultimately metacognition." There are many flavors of CBT, but most deal in one way or another with metacognition.
"A lot of the work is about deciding how much you're going to get wrapped up in those thoughts," says Brinen.
Retrain Those Thoughts
Paying more attention to your metacognition can be a good practice for maintaining mental health, even if you're not clinically depressed. "We all have times when we're bummed out," says Brinen. "Many of us struggle a little bit, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we have a mental disorder." At times like these, a little bibliotherapy might help.
While there's a lot of garbage out there, he warns, there are several useful books, too. Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Christine Padesky and Dennis Greenberger and The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns are two he says 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.