Think About What You're Thinking About

The brain responds to stimuli the same, whether it's an external or internal event. When we think something, the brain responds as if it's actually happening. Neurons are activated and set off a chain reaction of hormones that trigger physical reactions.  Ever have a thought that made you blush?  Made your heart pound?  Sick to your stomach?  That's your brain reacting to internal stimuli, or thoughts. Cognitive Distortions (see list below) are all types of thoughts that get the stress response going.   

Comprehensive List of Cognitive Distortions

Below is a list of patterns of thinking that are problematic because they create internal stress or lead us to make choices that create distress.   Being aware of what we are thinking, and how we are thinking is called meta-cognition.  This involves stepping back and observing ourselves internally.  

Shoulding:  You hold yourself to a rigid and/or unrealistic set of rules or definitions about your role. Example: A good friend “should” lend money if asked.  I “should” make sacrifices.  You end up feeling overwhelmed, resentful, like a failure.

Catastrophizing:  Exaggerating a situation or using dramatic words such as:  awful, worst-ever, hideous, disgusting, terrible.  You feel shell-shocked. 

Magical thinking: Everything would be better if only I was: thinner, richer, prettier, smarter, etc. Everything is beyond your control.

Personalizing: Thinking that people are reacting to you, or doing what they do because of you.  You tend to see things as an attack, or conflict. 

Generalizations:  Using words like “always” and “never” and “everybody” keep your mind narrowed.  This builds up rigid beliefs about how the world is.

Filtering:  Looking only at the positive or negative aspects of a situation.  You go to a picnic and even though you enjoyed the food and games,  you focus on the bugs, the heat, who was there that you don’t like.

All or nothing thinking: Seeing things as all good or all bad, perfectionism.  It’s either great or it’s terrible. There is no middle ground.

Jumping to conclusions: You make assumptions based on first impressions or limited information.  It’s a foregone conclusion.  As a result, you make decisions based on inaccurate information, or end up worrying or being angry unnecessarily. 

Emotional reasoning:  Acting on your emotions; you feel unmotivated so you don’t get out of bed.  You feel irritable so you look for things that made you angry. Or, someone is angry at you and you assume that you are in the wrong.

Mind reading:  Assuming what someone is thinking based on emotional reasoning.  A friend at a party doesn’t come right over to greet you, you think she’s mad at you.  

Double standard:  You’re either harder on yourself than others (you’re the first to help out but the last to ask for help) or you think the rules don’t apply to you.  You don’t forgive yourself for mistakes.  Or you try to get people to make exceptions for you. 

Fallacy of fairness:  Getting caught up in what you think is fair rather than working with what is.

Displaced of blame or guilt:  Avoiding  responsibility by blaming on outside circumstances, or feeling responsible for something that’s not your fault. 

False permanence: Thinking things are never going to change, like: “I’ll never live this down.” 

Self-centeredness:  Excessive focusing on yourself, your own feelings and thoughts about a situation.  “I can’t go to that party, I’ll be so nervous,” or “ I felt really stupid asking for help.”

Erasing the Chalkboard: You don't connect past actions to current problems.  You get angry when people "bring up the past," or see individual mistakes as isolated incidents rather than part of an obvious pattern. 

How Thoughts Trigger Depression

Depression is fueled by repeated patterns of negative thoughts, often based on past experience.  This sets off a cascade of related negative thoughts called rumination.  Rumination is when we find ourselves brooding, or compulsively thinking about the situation in an emotional way.  The more this happens, the more easily this is triggered over time, and the more firmly entrenched we become with these beliefs, so the pattern of thoughts and depressive hopelessness becomes circular.

Schemas are personal views about how a person feels they fit into life, what life is or should be like, and how people should or do relate to each other.  Schemas involve personal narratives based on one's personal experiences and their interpretations.  Thus, schemas can serve as a force of resilience, or as a magnet for heightened awareness of negative events, and when they fit into a personal schema, the reaction is automatic. 

Got ANTs?

Dr. Amen, who rewrote the book on ADHD, calls these types of stress-producing thoughts, ANTs, or Automatic Negative Thoughts.  Here are some things you can do to get rid of ANTs.

1.Distract. Turn your attention to something else, preferably something emotionally neutral.  Trying to "make" yourself feel calm when you're anything but is likely to backfire.

2.Problem-solve. This should be done when your emotions have cooled.  Do some fact searching.  Ask yourself, Can this problem be solved now?  Is this a good time to work on it? If not, set an appointment with yourself as to when to work on it.   And then in the meantime, see #1.

3. Accept.  Sometimes we get so caught up in a problem that we feel our every chance of happiness depends on solving it.  Very few problems are such a matter of life and death, however, and sometimes fighting reality only ends up making things worse. Acceptance doesn't mean that you approve of the situation , or that you have given up ever trying to solve the problem, but that you allow yourself to strive for happiness even with the problem.  Sometimes it's only when we accept the problem in this way that we can begin to solve it.

How Counseling Can Help

Counseling can help by giving you specific skills to get rid of ANTs.  Counseling can help you see patterns and themes of your ANTs.  In recognizing these tendencies, you can become better at caching them before they cascade into ruminating.  Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is a very efficient approach.  While every case is unique and there are no guarantees, clients can often see a difference in as little as 8 sessions. 

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