You make up your lost time by rushing through your morning but just as you’re about to leave for work, your keys seem to have vanished from the face of the Earth.
When you finally find them and get out the door 15 minutes later than planned you think to yourself ”this day is going to be a disaster”.
This type of thought is what psychologists refer to as a cognitive distortion and in this example you’re experiencing an ”overgeneralization” – a tendency to reach a general conclusion based on a single incident.
Cognitive distortions come in a variety of different forms and learning to deal with them can be a massive help to interpret the world in a much more nuanced way and at the same time effectively deal with worry.
The Lies Your Mind is Telling You
Cognitive distortions are ways in which your mind convinces you of something that isn’t really true.
These inaccurate thoughts usually reinforce negative thinking and emotions by telling you things that sound rational but really only serve to keep you feeling bad about yourself.
Here are some common cognitive distortions (1) to look out for:
• Filtering. You magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones. For example, you’re having a great day in every aspect except that your bike gets stolen. You then dwell on this event exclusively and miss out on all the good things that are going on.
• Personalizing. When something bad occurs, you automatically blame yourself. For example, your friends cancel your night out and you assume that the change in plans happened because no one wanted to be around you.
• Polarized thinking. You see things as either black or white with no shades of gray. For example, if your presentation is anything other than perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
• Jumping to conclusions. You assume you know exactly what others are thinking and acting without them saying so. For example, a friend treats you badly and you automatically assume you know why without asking.
• Catastrophizing. No matter what, you expect disaster to strike. For example, you exaggerate the importance of a small mistake and expect the repercussions to be much greater than what’s realistic.
• Blaming. You hold other people responsible for your pain. For example, ”Stop making me feel bad about myself!”. No one can make you feel a certain way – only you have control over your emotional reactions.
• Shoulds. You have a list of rules about how you and others should behave. When you break them you feel guilty and when others break them you feel anger. For example, “I really should exercise today and not be so lazy”.
• Emotional reasoning. You believe that what you feel must automatically be true. For example, “I feel like I am too stupid for this, therefore I’m too stupid.”
• Always being right. You are always on trial to prove your opinions and actions right. For example, “I don’t care how badly this argument will hurt our relationship, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.”
• Overgeneralization. You come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. As in the example above, you can’t find your keys in the morning and automatically assume the rest of your day will be a disaster.
How to Worry Less in 5 Steps
”Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Viktor Frankl
The good news is that you don’t have to be a slave to your cognitive distortions. Becoming aware of them (as you perhaps just did), catching them in action and questioning them enables you to answer back and disprove the negative thinking.
Here’s how to change your cognitive distortions and automatic reactions into clear thinking and conscious responses:
- Stop. Catch yourself thinking in a way that seems like a cognitive distortion. Before your thoughts create the worst possible scenario and your body starts to react with stress – pause and be still.
- Breathe. Take a deep breath. This will bring your attention back to the present moment and relieve the physical tension in your body.
- Be mindful. Use your breath as your mind’s foundation and observe your thoughts, physical sensations and feelings. Be open to anything in an accepting and nonjudgmental way.
- Reflect. Once you’ve broken your pattern of automatic reactions focus your attention in a conscious and constructive manner. Question your thoughts: Why am I reacting this way? What are my automatic thoughts? Am I exaggerating what’s going on with negative thinking? Can I be more clear and constructive in my thinking? Is there a more constructive and positive way to frame this situation?
- Choose. Instead of reacting automatically, you can now make conscious and more constructive choices.
Changing your automatic responses is never easy but by continually practicing these five steps you’ll become more mindful and aware of your thoughts.
Then, as you keep proving your negative thoughts wrong, they’ll slowly diminish and over time be replaced by more rational, balanced and empowering thoughts.
”Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow.
It empties today of its strength.”
– Corrie Ten Boom