As discussed in the first installment of this series on How Thinking Contributes to Depression, mood disturbance often occurs not merely as a result of unfavorable circumstances or events, but oftentimes because of the way in which a person perceives or interprets an event. Two people might experience the same situation (e.g., receive a poor test grade) but have very different thoughts or interpretations of the situation; one person might interpret the failing grade as a sign of his incompetence (e.g. “I’m such an idiot”), while another person might have more balanced thoughts about himself (e.g. “I didn’t prepare enough for that test”). The types of thoughts a person has influences the emotions he experiences as a result. Using the above example, the person who has self-deprecating thoughts will likely experience negative emotions and predictions about future performance since he has internalized the belief that he is the problem. His behavior, as a result, is also impacted by his thinking, and he will likely fail to make adjustments to how he prepares for tests in the future. The other person in this scenario will likely experience disappointment, but because he attributes his failure to his lack of preparation rather than some intrinsic weakness, he maintains his sense of self-worth and can be confident about his ability to perform better in the future. This person will most likely make a plan to study harder for the next test.
Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors perpetually inform and influence one another, but we are often unaware of this interaction. Both thoughts and emotions can occur outside of our awareness and when this happens, we tend to automatically accept them as “truth” and allow them to impact our behavior. The problem is, these automatic thoughts are not completely true and are often not true at all; they develop as a result of deeply held beliefs we have about ourselves, others, and the world. We’ll take a closer look at these core beliefs in our next installment of this series. Unhelpful thoughts often follow particular patterns called cognitive distortions which can further reinforce negative thoughts and emotions. These cognitive distortions, while common, are nonetheless unhelpful and are often irrational ways of thinking. The following list details some of the most common cognitive distortions:
Magnification and Minimization: Blowing things out of proportion (catastrophizing) or minimizing the importance of something. Example: Believing your successes are unimportant while your mistakes are excessively important.
Overgeneralization: Seeing a pattern based upon a solitary event or drawing overly-broad conclusions. Example: Feeling awkward during a Mix and Meet dinner and concluding that you are always awkward in social situations.
Personalization: Blaming yourself for events outside your control. Example: Believing your parents got divorced because you had done something wrong.
Emotional Reasoning: Assuming that because you feel a certain way, what you think must be true. Example: Feeling like you are a bad wife must mean you are a bad wife.
Jumping to Conclusions: Assigning meaning to an event or situation without evidence to support such a conclusion. Two key forms of this distortion include:
Disqualifying the Positive/Mental Filter: Paying attention to only certain types of evidence (usually negative) and discounting the positive aspects of a situation. Example: Receiving a positive performance review but focusing completely on the comments regarding what needs improvement.
“Should”, “Ought”, “Must” Statements: Using critical words like these to communicate a belief that things always need to be a certain way. When applied to self, we tend to feel guilty, like we have failed in some way. When applied to others, we often feel frustrated and blocked from having something we think we deserve. Example: “They should have known better.”
All-or-Nothing Thinking: Thinking in shades of ‘black and white’ – often involving the use of absolutes like “always” and “never” – and not allowing for moderate alternatives in explanations of events or circumstances. Example: “If I am not perfect, I have failed.”
Labeling: Assigning labels to self or others. Examples: “I’m a loser,” or, “He’s such an idiot.”
You have likely fallen victim to at least one of the above cognitive distortions, but don’t be alarmed if you identified with several of them. As previously mentioned, these are common thinking ruts; we all have them. Though we might be able to pick a few out of a “line-up” like the above list, identifying them in the moment is a bit more tricky. Pay special attention to negative emotions such as anger, depression or anxiety. Imagine that they are signals – like the lights on the instrument panel of your car – that indicate when something “under the hood” needs attention. Once we can identify the types of thoughts that are causing the unpleasant emotions or unwanted behaviors, we can do something about them.
David, in Psalm 139, implores God to engage in this scrutiny with him: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24, NASB). David knew that he could not trust the veracity of his own thoughts or inclinations of his heart, so he asked God to examine and modify them in such a way that ultimately led him to the path of Life.
If you would benefit from the help of a professional counselor as you join God in this refining endeavor, please do not hesitate to call and set up an appointment today (979)703-1808.