Wellness — February 12, 2020 at 1:58 pm

Stress Less and Start Living: Cognitive Distortions, Part 3

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This is the last installment in a 3-part series by Staff Writer, Chad Morris.

Stress is the hitchhiker that sneaks into your car when you open the door to new challenges and experiences. A life without the potentiality for stress is one that’s closed off to the world, and nobody wants that. You may not be able to erase stress from the world, but what you can do is control your thoughts and ultimately how you react to stress. Allow me to explain.

When I graduated from university I was at a crossroads. The world was my oyster and the smell of shellfish made me sick. I was so paralyzed by overthinking that I sought out a cognitive behavioral therapist to help unravel my tangled brain. It was there I learned that when we get stressed, our thought patterns can get knotted with cognitive distortions. These distortions flood your thoughts with emotions and falsehoods, leading to even more stress!

When cognitive distortions happen, you need to challenge these negative thoughts to keep them from spiraling out of control. You need to have a dialogue with your inner monologue.

Polarized Thinking

Do you find yourself often classifying things in absolutes? If something wasn’t a success, it was a failure. If something is out of your comfort zone, it’s because you’re not that kind of person. Everything is either black or white; it’s the disastrous book sequel, “Zero Shades of Grey.” This distortion is called polarized thinking and it can make you close minded and undermine your self-worth.

To challenge this distortion, first recognize when you’re using terms like always or never, everything or nothing, and good or bad. Then, either alone or with someone you trust, come up with evidence that supports a more nuanced perspective. You’ll be less emotionally reactive when you stop classifying everything to the most extreme degree. The world is complex and very rarely do people or situations fit in perfect boxes.

Catastrophizing

Do you ever play the what-if game? You start with an ordinary situation and what-if your way towards the worst-case scenario. Suppose you have a bad day at work:

  • What if today was so difficult because I’m not qualified for my job?
  • What if my boss realizes this and fires me?
  • What if I can’t find any other jobs because I’m unqualified?
  • What if I can’t pay my mortgage? I’ll lose my house!
  • What if I end up homeless?!

Your bad day at work – a mild stressor – has morphed into you living on the streets fighting over a can of tuna. It’s no wonder you’re stressed! If you ever find yourself toying with the what-if game, you can’t leave the questions open ended. You need to start with the initial what-if question and ask yourself:

  • What are all the possible outcomes and how likely will each occur?
  • How can you best handle each outcome?
  • What steps can you take now to prevent the worst scenario and ensure the best?

What-if spirals are powerful because they narrow your focus on the worst outcome and undermine your sense of control and resilience. By elaborating on each question, you regain control and often realize how emotionally charged and unrealistic your what-if spiral was.

Should Statements

Do you ever get frustrated or worried because something isn’t the way it should be? Making negative statements about how things ought to be is a distortion in which you set strict expectations on yourself and others that already aren’t being met. These statements often arise when unfairly comparing ourselves to others. “I should have more in retirement savings at my age, I’m so behind.” Doing this gives power to the problem without offering a solution, inviting stress to come put its feet up on the desk that is your life.

You need to first realize that setting expectations on past behaviors is unproductive, as is comparing yourself to others. The only accurate measure of your self-worth is the comparison between your past and current self. If you find yourself shoulding, reframe it as a goal for the future instead. You ideally would (read: not should) have more money saved for retirement at your age, but life isn’t always ideal. How can you start saving more each month going forward to reach a predetermined target by the end of the year? By recalibrating should statements into actionable goals, you create a path forward that isn’t weighted with feelings of guilt or disappointment.

These are three cognitive distortions that I struggled the most with, but there are fifteen in total as per the father of cognitive therapy, Dr. Aaron T. Beck. If negative thoughts are significantly affecting your quality of life, consider professional help. I would highly recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, it’s referred to in the field as the gold standard of psychotherapy.

Stress may sneak its way into your car, but remember you are always in the driver’s seat.

The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. None of the information presented is intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. This is a personal account and individual experiences may vary. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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