How to Challenge Thinking Errors in Stressful Times
Currently, most people have experienced an incredible shift in our regular daily routines. With this change, many individuals are experiencing increased worry, stress, anxiety, depressed moods, irritability, and other common mood changes or mental health disorders. If you fit into this category, you may hear others encouraging you to be positive or to make the best of the situation. Although this concept is beautiful in spirit, it is not always easy to do, and in some cases minimizing each other’s unique experiences may even create more harm than good. As our daily routines have changed, so has the internal monologue which narrates our experience.
Self-talk is influenced by our underlying assumptions and beliefs and is not always accurate. Often internal self-talk creates destructive thinking in the form of erroneous beliefs and can wreak havoc on our lives. Unfortunately, this type of thinking, if left unchecked, eventually turns into an automatic habit and will reinforce the negative thinking patterns and behaviors we may be experiencing. With that said, through awareness and cognitive reframing, just like any other unhelpful habit, people can change their thinking errors, which will help manage anxiety, increase productivity, offer stress relief, and much more. So what is cognitive reframing, and how do we incorporate it into our new way of living?
What is it?
Cognitive reframing is a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skill that helps people recognize, confront, and alter negative thought patterns and beliefs. Cognitive reframing aims to replace stress-inducing thoughts patterns or habits with more realistic, gentle, and overall helpful thoughts. CBT is an evidence-based therapeutic technique developed by pioneer therapist Beck and built upon by Ellis, which helps people to stop relying on autopilot thoughts as the truth of reality and instead to test each thought for accuracy. The concept of CBT is that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors interact together, so if we can change our thoughts, then we can change how we feel or act. With this said, CBT is not the only approach that is useful with negative thinking patterns, depending upon the context, mindfulness also works.
What does it do?
Utilizing CBT skills, helps us to slow down, organize our thoughts, and create awareness for ourselves. Doing so helps us to have clear, rational thinking, so that we may respond to situations instead of reacting. Additionally, applying this method helps to change our habits, and be more flexible and realistic with our thoughts. Further benefits of cognitive reframing are that it helps us manage worry and anxiety, be more productive, offer stress relief, and much more.
First – Let’s explore the belief. Write down the automatic thought or belief. Writing our thoughts down makes it easier to assess them and approach them with curiosity.
Second – Consider what activated or triggered the thought or belief? Was it something you read or heard someone say? Maybe a song, smell, or taste?
Third – Write the feeling which came with the event (mad, sad, glad, or afraid) as well as the intensity on a scale of 1-10, with one being the least emotion and 10 being the most intense feelings.
Fourth – This is where we want to dispute the thought. Consider whether our beliefs are wrong or if we have experienced a cognitive distortion (see list below) and write down what you have discovered. Questions that might help to challenge these thoughts are: Are these thoughts I have accurate? Is there evidence to support the idea? What are some other thoughts I could have? What is another reason for the situation?
Fifth – Rephrase the belief or thought in a more realistic format. An effective new replacement thought. Repeat step three. Write the feeling which came with the event (mad, sad, glad, or afraid) as well as the intensity on a scale of 1-10, with one being the least emotion and 10 being the most intense feelings. With the new more realistic thought, the negative emotions should decrease even just a degree or two and be more manageable.
Finally, look for patterns of your cognitive distortions or self-limiting beliefs. Ask yourself, do specific experiences trigger thought habits? What are my typical emotional responses when these triggers occur?
(A psychologist, Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and David Burns was responsible for popularizing it with common names and examples for the distortions).
List of Common Cognitive Distortions:
- Mind Reading – Thinking we know what others are thinking without checking it out.
- Fortune Telling – predicting something may or may not happen based on falsehoods, or thinking we know what the other person is thinking or feeling without checking it out.
- Catastrophizing – Expecting tragedy to happen no matter what
- Polarized thinking – Thinking in black and white with no shades of grey. All or nothing mentality or thinking in extremes. Example: “If I am not perfect, then I am an awful person.”
- Overgeneralization – Coming to a conclusion based on a single event. Example: “I am divorced, so I will never be any good at relationships.”
- Personalization – Taking everything personally
- Control Fallacy – Two beliefs, one is we are in control of every situation, and the other is, we are responsible for the pain and happiness of all.
- The Fallacy of Fairness – The belief that everything in life is supposed to be fair, and when it doesn’t work out that way, we feel resentful.
- The Fallacy of Change – Expecting others to change to suit us.
- Blaming – Blaming others for things we are responsible for, or the opposite taking all the blame and not let others assume responsibility
- Should – Imposing rigid rules on the self or others about how one “should” behave.
- Emotional reasoning – When emotions take over all rational thoughts. I feel a specific way, so it must be true. Example: I feel stupid, so it must be true.
- Global Blaming – Describing a person or event with extreme language or emotion without fulling creating understanding about the person or event.
- Always being right – Being right is more important than anything else, including our relationships or the other persons feeling
- Filtering – takes a negative detail and filters out all positives, solely focusing on the negative