Our brains, when under the influence of strong emotions, will generate thoughts consistent with those feelings.
When we are anxious, our thoughts magnify the difficulties of our situation and minimize our abilities to cope. When sadness takes hold, our thoughts focus on the negative aspects of our situation, ourselves and our future. When anger takes over, our thoughts spring from a narrowed and hurt sense-of-self.
These mood-congruent thoughts both perpetuate the same feelings and drive us to act in ways that make our situations worse. Caught up in anger and seeing only our own point of view, we can lash out. Overwhelmed by anxiety and doubting our own abilities, we avoid and withdraw. Stuck in sadness and seeing only the negative, we may give up and stop trying.
Applying the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy, we can step out of the automatic vicious cycles that get us stuck in negative feelings. The first step is to be mindful of our changing feelings. If we don’t, we won’t see how our emotional states are influencing our thoughts and actions.
Mindfulness allows us to recognize unhelpful thoughts before they take hold. We can then challenge them with more adaptive thoughts that can get us out of those automatic cycles. With mindful and deliberate practice, we can replace old patterns of thinking, feeling and acting.
Here are some of the thinking traps we all fall into from time to time. Recognizing these common patterns can help you recognize them in yourself, challenge them and replace them with more balanced thoughts. The trick is to pick up on them as they arise from a compassionate perspective. Don’t beat yourself up.
All or nothing (black and white) Thinking: “It has to be just right or it’s a total disaster.” “If I’m not perfect, I’m a complete failure.”
Jumping to conclusions (mindreading and fortune telling): “She did that just to hurt me.” “They think I’m a total loser.” “I’m going to fail this exam.”
Overgeneralizing: “Nothing ever goes my way.” “No one is nice to me.” “Everything at school (or work) is all bad.”
Magnification (catastrophizing) and minimizing: “I’m going to blow this quiz and then I’ll fail the whole year.” “That little success was nothing.”
Negative labeling: “I’m a loser.” “She’s an angry person.”
Personalization:“It’s all my fault when things don’t go well.” “He did that just to hurt me.”
I’m sure you can see how these types of thoughts can make us feel worse about any situation, but what can you do once you’ve caught yourself in a thinking trap?
Ask yourself, “Is there another way of thinking about this?” “What would a loved one tell me in this situation?” “What would I say to a good friend who’s thinking this way?”
With practice, you’ll come up with more adaptive and balanced thoughts that will actually improve your feelings about a situation and move you to act in a positive direction. For lasting changes, we have to harness the power of positive neuroplasticity — by rehearsing and reinforcing more adaptive ways of thinking until they become our new habits of thought.
Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in this paper. For more on mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy and neuroplasticity, see his website at davidicuswong.wordpress.com.