I suffer from ‘I have the worst luck’ syndrome. I once drove out after exams to catch up with a friend – one of my few attempts at self-care – and returned home with a busted tyre on my father’s car. This didn’t surprise me because I’m used to unfortunate events after experiencing short highs. It’s like a sign from the universe.
Now every time I run into a problem, I don’t look for a solution. I first confirm that: I do, in fact, have bad luck; then said problem would not have happened if I didn’t go out, meet a friend, take some time out for myself and so on; from which my brain draws the conclusion that self-care is bad.
This is an irrational thought process, but it makes complete sense to me. It’s also why you will never catch me relaxed on a night out. I’m stuck in a negative mental loop and you could be, too, if you’re constantly viewing the world through a negative lens, becoming prone to bad moods.
But there is a way out, say the psychologists Gulf News reached out to, and the first step is to realise that something is wrong with our thought patterns.
We all make thinking errors
Unhelpful ways of thinking can take many forms. They are so commonplace and automatic that we rarely catch ourselves exaggerating our reality. For instance, many of us are probably guilty of ‘mindreading’ a friend or a loved one, thinking that we’ve upset them somehow, when they’re actually fine.
Dr Farid Elazar, clinical psychologist at American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology in Dubai, chalks this up to distorted thinking: “In the branch of cognitive psychology, there is a family of thinking errors known as cognitive distortions. These are errors we make in our thinking, which lead to ill-formed conclusions.”
If you don’t have social support or a listener in your environment, thinking errors can get worse. It can result in depression and anxiety.
Do you ever find yourself overanalysing each punctuation mark when texting? And if there are no emoticons, then the other party is definitely mad at us, we assume. All of us experience a distortion from time to time, but when these become habitual, they can seriously impact our quality of life.
“Cognitive distortions can happen to anyone; they don’t lead to a mental health disorder. But if you don’t have social support or a listener in your environment, this can get worse. It can result in depression and anxiety,” Ritasha Varsani, a Community Development Authority licenced psychologist at LifeWorks Clinic, Dubai, told Gulf News.
10 errors in your thinking
American psychiatrist and author David D. Burns lists 10 thinking errors in his 1989 self-help book ‘Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy’. Here is a quick rundown to help you identify your own negative distortions:
1. All-or-nothing thinking: Also known as black-and-white thinking, this error occurs when we describe ourselves in extremes. “For example, you may think ‘I’m either good at math or bad at it’ – it’s either or, there is no middle ground,” said Dr Elazar.
2. Overgeneralisation: You take one, singular negative event and apply it to all settings. Failing one job interview could mean that you will never manage to get hired again.
3. Mental filter: Sometimes known as tunnel vision, this error makes us filter out the positives to only notice the negatives about a situation or a person. This applies to seeing the worst in others when you yourself are stuck in a poor headspace. Or, you’ve delivered a well-received presentation overall but because someone in the audience didn’t clap, you think otherwise.
4. Discounting facts: This type of error is often accompanied by the thought ‘it was pure luck’. You produced stellar results on a project you handled at work but shrug it off as a one-off fluke.
5. Jumping to conclusions: Dr Elazar says that people who encounter distressing stimulus often picture the worst-case scenario.
We jump to conclusions in two ways, according to Burns: The first is ‘mindreading’, where we project our anxiety onto others and look for signs to confirm their bad mood.
“Say I’m at a restaurant and smile at a stranger, but they don’t smile back. Based on my cognitive distortion, I’d take that negatively. We don’t think that maybe they had a reason for not smiling back,” said Varsani.
The second is ‘fortune telling’ future events and that they will always end badly. Oftentimes we predict that things will never work out for us for whatever reason – ‘I have so much work to do; I’ll be so stressed that I won’t finish anything.’
6. Magnification: This happens when we tend to magnify our problems, even though they are not so overwhelming in reality. For instance, says Dr Elazar, someone with social anxiety might think no one wants to interact with them because of their body odour, outfit or breath. “If you focus on your odour, it’ll only become fouler. You’re magnifying your own mental state,” he added.
If someone has social anxiety, they would be focused on their body odour, breath and what they're wearing. You're magnifying your own mental state.
7. Emotional reasoning: We make judgements solely based on the way we’re feeling in the moment. If you wake up with heart palpitations and feel anxious, you’re convinced you will have a bad day.
8. Should statements: These can be directed towards ourselves, others or the world in general. As the term suggests, we might start a thought with ‘I shouldn’t have done that’, which only serves to fuel our negative mood and trigger feelings of guilt.
9. Labelling: This is a severe case of overgeneralisation, where a single event becomes a defining point. One could label themselves as a ‘loser’ for not getting invited to a party, for example, says Dr Elazar.
10. Personalisation and blame: We engage in personalisation when we blame our “personal flaws for why people behave badly with [us],” says Dr Elazar. This can manifest in thoughts like ‘I don’t have any friends because I’m a bad person,’ instead of looking for a solution. The opposite is also erroneous – blaming others or external factors for your own shortcomings.
Unresolved past trauma
We resort to dysfunctional thinking patterns in times of stress or upon encountering a trigger. Cognitive distortions are deeply embedded as a response to unpleasant events. Varsani points out two likely causes for why one might develop negative automatic thinking.
“It could either be childhood trauma or having experienced some critical situation in life as a child, adolescent or even later as an adult,” she said. “In childhood, these events could be sibling rivalry when parents always praise one and neglect the other, domestic violence, anger problems, having divorced parents and more.”
Cognitive distortions could be due to either childhood trauma or having experienced some critical situation in life as a child, adolescent or even later as an adult.
It is possible that emotions felt during the critical life event were not processed in a healthy manner. Varsani cites a client’s case who has been projecting her own unresolved childhood issues onto her six-year-old daughter.
“I had a client who was a mother of a six-year-old and lived with her mother-in-law. When she went to work, she would be paranoid that the mother-in-law would turn her daughter against her, while none of this was true. Due to childhood issues with her own mother, she started feeling insecure about her child. It’s an unhealthy pattern of acceptance,” she said.
How to unlearn thinking errors
Step 1: Realise
The first step, stresses Dr Elazar, is to realise what is happening inside our heads. Ask yourself how you’ve reached your current conclusion and retrace your steps logically. Chances are people around you have picked up on these patterns.
“A rule of thumb is that if more than three people believe you possess a certain trait, then you need to see a therapist. It’s not a fluke – this is something you need to sort out,” he added.
A rule of thumb is that if more than three people believe you possess a certain trait, then you need to see a therapist.
When cognitive distortions become recurrent throughout life, they prevent our mental growth, according to Varsani. We view the world through a pigeon hole, not knowing that there could be proper coping tools out there to help us.
Step 2: Differentiate between what you can and cannot control
The next time you come across a trigger, take a moment to assess if the situation is within your control.
“It’s very important to realise that the [adversities] we face are not in our hands. But when we do face them, we need to be resilient. You have to challenge the negative thought process and look at what’s in your control at the moment,” said Varsani.
She adds that implementing mindful techniques could help calm us down.
Step 3: Accept your situation
Instead of jumping to conclusions and blaming unforeseen forces, process your negative feelings. These are important signals that tell us what to do next. Avoidance, says Varsani, will only serve to exacerbate your spiralling thoughts.
“Engage with your feelings and label them. How are they impacting your body? What part of the body feels heavy? Relax, breathe and confront your fears,” she added.
Step 4: Challenge the errors
While professionally challenging cognitive distortions is done inside a therapist’s office, we can slowly work up to the task as well. Both health professionals agree cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an effective solution.
Correcting thinking errors usually involves looking for other alternatives and perspectives. Rather than taking the blame for somebody else’s bad mood, as one would in personalisation, ask yourself if there are other reasons for the person’s behaviour.
A good way to go about this would be to conduct an experiment, says Dr Elazar. Engage with the person instead of avoiding them, so that you can prove yourself right or wrong without dragging it out. In such cases, avoidance triggers a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you think someone is mad at you, your anxious mannerisms motivate them to confirm your biases. It’s an endless loop of unwarranted negativity.
Work with a friend
In CBT, a chronic erroneous thinker will be told to maintain a thought log sheet, something we can replicate at home but with a facilitator.
“When you get a thought, write it down. Write what you felt and what actions you took. Then we usually tell our client to challenge this thought by brainstorming possible perspectives,” said Varsani.
“This exercise will only help if they have a facilitator like a coach or a friend – they can’t do it alone. They need another person’s perspective.”