In this time of mounting economic issues, financial burdens, and the stress of everyday life many of us find ourselves in a state of constant worry. Worrying is not a solution to problems, but rather a non-productive way of thinking. Many individuals often confuse worrying with planning; however planning produces actions while worrying produces more anxiety.
Worrying is often the result of our own cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are defined as exaggerated and irrational thoughts. By finding ways to challenge these thoughts, we often can decrease worrying. This article explores several common cognitive distortions and presents challenges to encourage ways to create a more positive outlook and lifestyle.
Challenge Common Cognitive Distortions
1. Diminishing the Positives
When we diminish the positives we come up with several reasons why the positive events in our lives don’t count. For example, one may say, “My proposal at the meeting went really well, but I just got lucky” or “I got a promotion on my job, but that’s because no one else wanted it”. Diminishing the positives steals the joy from our accomplishments and achievements.
THE CHALLENGE: Embrace the positives and take pride in accomplishments. Evaluate the thoughts and take away the negativity. Instead of terms such as “I got lucky”, believe “I was prepared” or “I worked really hard”. Increasing the positives will create a positive outlook and increase self-esteem.
Overgeneralization is defined as taking a single negative experience and expecting it to forever be true. An individual practicing this cognitive distortion may say “I didn’t have friends in middle school, I’ll never have friends in high school” or “I wasn’t able to pass the test, I’ll never pass any tests”.
THE CHALLENGE: We all have negative events that have taken place in our lives. Some of those events stay and hurt more than others. The challenge is to take those negative events and believe that we can create different outcomes in the future. Instead of stating “I wasn’t able to pass the test, I’ll never pass any”, say and believe “I didn’t pass that one, but I will work hard and pass the next”. Remember that a single negative experience doesn’t hold true forever. It may also be helpful to reflect on times where a single negative experience did not have the same long lasting outcome.
3. Filtering out the Positives
Focusing on the negatives and filtering out all of the positives is another example of a cognitive distortion. In this case an individual will focus on the one thing that went wrong instead of all the things that went right. For example, I once asked a client how things were going and the reply was “Awful”. When asked to elaborate the client went on to say “I studied last night, got up on time, made it to class, passed my test, ran into an old friend and had lunch, but I got a flat tire”. The client felt the day was “awful” because of the flat tire and wasn’t able to focus on the positives of the day.
THE CHALLENGE: FOCUS… FOCUS… FOCUS!!! Focus on all of the positives that happen. Review the events of the day or the moment, creating a game of positive vs. negative. If it is helpful you may want to write a list. Fold a piece of paper in half and write down all of the good things that have happened and a list of all of the bad things. This may seem challenging at times, but more often than not we will discover that the positive side wins. Sometimes writing it down creates just the visual we need to put things in perspective.
4. Making everything a Catastrophe
Often known as “catastrophizing”, this is when an individual expects the worst scenario to happen. For example and individual involved in this type of thinking may say “There’s a thirty minute delay in traffic, I’ll never get to work” or “the pilot said there is turbulence, we’re really going to crash”.
THE CHALLENGE: Think positive! Take the event for what it is and don’t make it anything other than that. If there is a delay in traffic, think rationally. Instead of thinking “I’m never going to get there”, think “I may be late, but I will get there”. In the meantime, focus on positive things you can do such as enjoying the scenery or listening to your favorite music. You may find that engaging in other positive thoughts decreases the amount of time there is for negative thinking.
5. Jumping to Conclusions
Jumping to conclusions is defined as making interpretations without actual evidence. In this case, the individual will often make those interpretations negative. One may claim, without cause, “I know my co-worker doesn’t like me because of the way he looks at me” or predict, “I just know I’m going to have a bad day”.
THE CHALLENGE: Think before you leap… to a conclusion that is. If you find yourself engaging in this type of thinking, take a step back and ask yourself “do I really know this to be true?” If the answer is “no”, then focus on the things that you know to be true. It is also important to remember not to negatively predict your future. If you are going to predict it, give it a positive ending. Instead of saying “I’m going to have a bad day”, say “today may have some obstacles, but I will overcome them and I will have a good day”.
6. All -or-Nothing Thinking
This distortion is described as thinking of things in absolute terms. “All-or-Nothing” thoughts often contain words like “never”, “always”, and “every”. For example, “I never get picked”, “I always make bad decisions” or “every time I try I fail”.
THE CHALLENGE: Don’t put yourself in the “never-always-every” box. These words are not only negative when used in this type of thinking, but can also be damaging to your self-esteem. Challenge yourself to think of times when these words were not true. Instead of “I always make bad decisions”, think of positive decisions that you have made. Remember, there are few situations that are absolute.
An individual with this distortion labels themselves based on mistakes or shortcomings. They will often use negative language such as “I’m a failure, I’m a loser, or I will never be anything”.
THE CHALLENGE: For every negative, there is a positive. Many times after a disappointing moment or a failed attempt at something we label ourselves as “failures” or “stupid”. Challenge these negative thoughts by replacing them with positives. You may have failed at one attempt (or maybe even several), but it doesn’t make you a failure. Sometimes you may make a not-so-great decision, but it doesn’t make you stupid. Learn how to separate these and avoid those negative labels.
Personalization involves assuming responsibility for things that are outside one’s control. For example, without having anything to do with a situation, one may say “it’s my fault my daughter had an accident” or “I’m the one to blame for his work being done incorrectly”.
THE CHALLENGE: Think logically! When we personalize things we take on the full responsibility. Carefully evaluate situations to really determine whether or not you have any responsibility for the outcome. Don’t place unnecessary blame on yourself for the actions and responsibilities of others.
Leo Buscaglia once said, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy”, this is important to remember. Take on the daily challenge of recognizing and changing these cognitive distortions. By changing our negative thinking, we may find ourselves worrying less and enjoying life more.