We Are What We Think
Dr. Aline Strong, C.Psych
One of the basic principles of CBT is that our thinking has a significant impact on our mood. The ways in which we interpret our situations and perceive ourselves and others can influence how we feel. Imagine, for example, that I send a text to a friend and don’t get a reply. Depending on how I interpret that situation I may feel a particular way. If I think that my friend is busy and could not get back to me at that time, I may not make a big a deal out of that situation and thus feel impartial. However, if I think my friend is purposefully ignoring me, then I may feel sad and may even have further negative thoughts about my friend and/or myself (e.g., “no one likes me”) which, in turn, may aggravate how I feel about that situation. In our day-to-day life, we find ourselves in situations whose interpretations are ambiguous, and it is up to us to determine what to make of them. If our tendency is to draw negative conclusions about them, then sooner or later our mood will follow suit and will start to decline as well.
Several types of negative thinking have been linked to increased depressed mood and anxiety. They are known in psychology as cognitive distortions or thinking errors, and they receive that name because they distort aspects of our reality and lead us to make erroneous conclusions about ourselves as well as things around us. Below is a list of the most common cognitive distortions out there.
1. Catastrophizing: Making a “catastrophe” of every scenario, such that even a minor mistake, disappointment, or embarrassment can lead to a great sense of fear or despair.
2. All-or-Nothing: Perceiving things in absolute or black-and-white categories. Situations, people, and yourself are seen as either “perfect” or a “failure,” with no shades of grey.
3. Jumping to Conclusions: Making negative assumptions or predictions about a situation without having any evidence for them.
4. Mental Filtering: Ignoring the positives in a situation and dwelling instead only on its negative.
5. Personalizing: Blaming yourself or assuming responsibility for things you were not entirely responsible for or things partially out of control. This distortion makes you take things personally and thus leads to feelings of guilt.
Note that these cognitive distortions are somewhat similar and relate to one another. Using the example mentioned above where my friend did not reply to my text, I could have concluded that my friend ignored my text because they were involved in a car crash (catastrophizing), or they no longer want to be friends with me (catastrophizing, all-or-nothing). Similarly, I could have assumed that my friend’s unresponsiveness was a sign that no one likes me (all-or-nothing) or that my friend was upset with me (jumping-to-conclusion). Lastly, I could have concluded that I am to blame for my friend’s unresponsiveness because I must have done something wrong to them or bothered them with my text (personalizing). In all these scenarios, I would have ignored all the positives of my friendship and focused instead on a single negative incident, that is, my friend not responding to my text.
Most of us engage in some cognitive distortions some of the time; however, if you find yourself engaging in them with frequency, then you may want to assess the accuracy of your thinking and commit to creating some changes in the way you think. Cognitive distortions can do much harm to your mood if not challenged, and in the long run can skew your entire way of perceiving the world, others, and yourself. They may in fact become habitual, leading to chronic pessimism and low mood.
If you would like to make changes in your patterns of thinking and thus improve your mood, start by monitoring your thoughts in the next few days. Know that becoming aware of cognitive distortions is a big part of eradicating them. If you notice that your thoughts fall into one or more of those types of cognitive distortions, challenge them: assess whether you have any evidence for them, seek potential alternatives to them, conduct a survey and ask people around you if they interpret similar things about similar situations.