People who are depressed, anxious or have other mental health issues can tend to look on the dark side of things, be pessimistic. So can many people, at times, especially if faced with a large job, a large ‘issue’ with lots of changes looming and little support available. People can readily slip into a negative train of thought as their temporary default setting.
It is when this default setting becomes permanent that the problems arise. From my work with clients over many years (though I haven’t seen any research evidence on this) I feel that this pessimism, this distortion of thought is often the last element of their illness to disappear. This can lead to people being sure that they will never get well, rather, will always be depressed, anxious etc. Others appear to continue to maintain it as their preferred way of thinking even when not officially diagnosed as currently depressed or struggling with any mental illness. It seemingly lurks, waiting to drag in the other ‘symptoms’ to join it whilst continuing to affect self-concept, self-esteem, self-worth, place in friendships and relationships both at present and in the future. The majority based very firmly on inaccurate, incorrect or distorted self-beliefs.
These distortions lead to inappropriate activation of the flight/fight/freeze response, which, rather than operating to save your life makes you physically ill as it has stopped being a short-term, occasional event. The stress can lead to heart problems or a stroke, a raising of blood pressure, ageing of bones or brain cells through neurotoxicity. The areas of the brain particularly affected are those responsible for working memory, and the frontal lobe which basically helps you to get things done.
So, what are the elements of this distortion of thought? I will consider them individually, although in fact, they frequently come as part of a pick and mix package of wayward ways of thinking. They can lead to the overreactions talked of in the last blog - Do you make a scene, throw your dummy out?- as these thoughts are believed as true without question, or any sort of challenge to their accuracy being offered.
ALWAYS FOCUSING ON THE NEGATIVE
This is a common distortion. There appears to be a filter somewhere in the mind that struggles to let anything positive be accepted. Only negative thoughts and outcomes pass muster when it comes to this filter as it is rigidly set to allow only the negative crap flow through easily, consistently’ unhampered. Happiness is totally removed from situations even if there is, in reality, only a small element of negativity in a conversation, a situation, whatever, it is this bit which will be picked at, rather in the way that we tend to pick at a scab. It becomes bigger and more dominant - dominating. Maybe you have been out with a group of friends who have complimented you on your hair, make-up, dress etc. One person, amidst their compliment may have slipped in that the cut of the dress might have put a bit of emphasis on your hips. This is the bit that remains and continues to grow and lead on to other aspects of distortion including …
Whereby the one negative comment is the only one remembered and as the comment was made, it must be so. This leads to not only hips but also boobs, stomach being emphasised too – in fact, the dress and the wearer are a total disaster along with the whole evening.
ARE YOU A CATASTROPHISER?
The answer to this is, probably, if you act as our imaginary person above has done. Maybe a man is being criticised at work for his time keeping; simply a quiet word from his line manager. A catastrophiser would mentally see himself not only losing his job, probably without a decent reference, be unable to get a new one, with a wife and kids to feed and a mortgage to pay. How much more catastrophic this feels if such thoughts are ruminated on in the middle of a long, dark night with the un-knowing partner quietly resting in the arms of Morpheus. It has become …..
ALL OR NOTHING
As the line manager hadn’t been heaping on praise, so was not being 100% positive, he has failed. His version of the event is totally black and white with no shades of grey being allowed to creep in. He is a failure, a loser, full stop. He is confusing his thoughts with who/how he is. He has labelled himself and in all likelihood, without change taking place, will find that other areas of his life can and often will seemingly conform to fit in with his label. Whereas in reality, he has simply been told to tweak his time management through making a few amendments to how he does thing. His time keeping, but not his work in general! He has used over-generalisation and probably ‘always’ and ‘never’ were words happening a lot in his self-talk... and he probably does the same in other aspects of his life.
MAGNIFICATION AND MINIMISATION
He is an ‘accentuater’ of the negative and an eliminator of the positive. His errors, well, they happen all the time and his achievements (despite being married, with children and buying a home) – they are not worthy of a mention.
In fact, people often react in this way when exhibiting a fear or a phobia. Maybe on one occasion, as a child, they were barked at by what looked to be a huge dog. This fear can be catastrophized in the mind of a child and rather than being dismissed as a one-off by a noisy dog and handled sensitively by an adult, it can go on to be a fear of each and every dog, no matter of breed, size, friendliness etc.
Over the years, there will probably have been many negative self-messages that have added grist to the mill of this fear, or eliminated any positive aspects of an event. So many of us are very good at getting out that good old metaphorical big stick. It is always to hand ready to beat ourselves up, to ensure that the message is well and truly hammered home. The person with the fear of dogs, the man with the poor time keeping, they have both been guilty of …
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
In neither case has there been any factual support to this leap that they have taken. The line manager is reacting totally negatively towards them, the adult knows that all dogs are prone to leap at you and bite you. There is a presumption that things will conclude in a negative way. A way that would be totally kicked out of a court or have a line put through if presenting a conclusion to a science experiment without due consideration of what had actually, accurately taken place. Such people tend to act as fortune tellers – being convinced that things WILL go badly for them. They will blame luck. They are always and have always been unlucky. Whereas, if they were to consider actual facts, rather than their version of the facts, they would see that it is how they have perceived events, have handled them, and had expectations of things going badly that have led to things not working out well for them. They have, in all likelihood subconsciously, fulfilled their own prophesy.
IS IT ALWAYS YOUR FAULT?
Frequently those who are liable to distort their thinking will accompany the previously mentioned negative self-messages with should, ought, and must. Obviously, people do use these words, and use them appropriately but when they are used negatively and persistently they are judging themselves and presuming fault. They are heaping on the guilt. Dr Albert Ellis, developer of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy described this as (and here, I am ensuring that fingers are working well) ‘musterbation.’ The use of such words is something that I have worked on in therapy with many clients. I should have done better, I ought to have been able to do that, I must improve how I do that – yes, they have a place when used with compassion and reality checks, but not when accompanied by that flipping big stick again! We work at putting on a positive spin, setting realistic, achievable, timed targets and burning that stick in a big bonfire. Rather than ‘I should have done better’- – maybe a more positive and kinder-to-self spin would be ‘I did the best that I could at the time and now know what I can work on to improve things’. Something that can be achieved by positive self-reflection but is usually most effective as part of a therapeutic program of work.
DO YOU USE EMOTIONAL REASONING?
By this I mean do you confuse emotions with how things really are – for example, ‘I feel that I didn’t make that bunting for my granddaughter well’ translating through to ‘I didn’t make that bunting well …. I am no good at sewing.’ The negative feelings have become what actually is – in your mind, that is. Or are you …
APPARENTLY ABLE TO READ MINDS, TO PERSONALISE THINGS
In other words, to correctly know what others thoughts, wishes, beliefs are without them having specifically stated these. For example – ‘My friend hasn’t seen me for a while. It must be because she doesn’t like me any longer.’ The fact that said friend may be very busy doesn’t come on the scope, responsibility has been accepted, without the necessary evidence, once again.
Another way of accepting responsibility for things that have had nothing at all to do with you is through PERSONALISATION. With some people this can go to extreme lengths with them being able to talk themselves into responsibility for major issues. On a more localised basis it can happen if there is an accident involving a family member or friend, then the one struggling with personalisation says they shouldn’t (that word again!) have let them go, when, in fact, it had been a choice freely made. They feel inappropriate guilt, remorse, responsibility, and an associated lowering of self-esteem.
CAN THE WAY YOU THINK BE CHANGED?
Absolutely, it can. The first step towards achieving this is being aware of your thought patterns, how you use them and how this makes you feel.
If you keep a journal, write down some of these thoughts that automatically popped into your mind – if you don’t keep a journal, simply keep a record of the thoughts, with the where, when, who and how of their happening. Be very honest with yourself –how could you then have responded differently, and how would this have changed what happened. The ABC of the event, A being what happened or was said; B your thoughts related to this; C the outcome, including how you were left feeling. If you can then tag on a D – how could I have thought in a different way to help achieve a better outcome.
The more that you do this and listen to the way that your thoughts pop into your mind, with the resulting negative self-talk, the better and the easier it becomes. Just where are you engaging that negative spin? Be critical of the voice, not of yourself. Recognise that it not necessarily truthful or accurate. This is a really positive step towards making a change. Back up this recognition with a positive vocal input – a ‘well done you’ and a proverbial pat on the back. Giving yourself these positive messages really does help to kick out the rubbishy negative ones!
Take a slow, deep breath before you react or respond. This allows a window of opportunity for reality to click in rather than your default setting of one or more of the distorted ways of thinking beginning to run its course. That breath can also stop the clicking in of the flight or fight response giving you a better chance of reacting/responding/thinking in a much more rational and real way. You prevent the related stress hormones from flooding your body and leading to a downward spiral of anxiety, concern and the chance of you saying the wrong thing, that cannot then be unsaid.
Don’t beat yourself up about how you have been thinking – all that will achieve is you becoming even better at beating yourself up!! Don’t get stressed about being stressed. If you learn to recognise and switch off the distortions, anxiety will decrease and, over time, healthy mental and bodily functioning will return.
I will shortly be including a section on this web site that is for downloading of relaxation, therapeutic recordings of hypnosis, but also affirmations, which will support the kicking out of the negative messages and distortions which have been talked of. They will be added to over the coming weeks. Watch this space! If you feel that therapy would help you to resolve any of the above issues, I do offer distance therapy if you do not live nearby or have difficulty with getting out.