Just as we form habits in the way we act, we also form habits in the way we think. Sometimes these habits are positive, and help us form better relationships and achieve greater success in life. Other times our habitual thinking patterns can be damaging to our own mental health, to our relationships, and even to others around us.
These toxic thinking patterns are usually made up of thoughts that distort our realities, or what mental health professionals call cognitive distortions. And we all have them to some degree or another. But when these patterns become habitual they can lead not only to inconveniences, but outright serious mental health and emotional problems.
The interesting, and scary, thing about cognitive distortions is that most often we don’t even recognize them. That is because when they become habitual, they also become automatic. There is a great deal of research that shows that these automatic thoughts are actually responsible for our moods, states, and general outlook on life. By learning to recognize these automatic thoughts, eliminating cognitive distortions, and reframing them to be positive in nature, we can literally create a more fulfilling and enjoyable reality.
Why are automatic thoughts so powerful?
Automatic thoughts probably originate in the part of the mind that is most directly responsible for emotions – the amygdala. This is the most primitive part of our mind, the part that our distant ancestors relied on to decide whether to flee a perceived threat, or stand and fight; also known as the “fight or flight” response to danger. The amygdala, and its super fast reactionary responses is undoubtedly a major reason why we humans survived and evolved. Without it, we would be kitty food for that sabre toothed tiger…
The reactions of the amygdala are so quick that they are for all intents automatic. The first thing we often recognize when it fires cognitively distorted automatic thoughts into our mind is a physical sensation, like rapid breathing, muscles tightening, temperature rising, rapid pulse, etc. We often do not even recognize the actual thoughts, or self-talk, that is escalating the physical and emotional reaction to whatever is happening around us. For a cave man facing a tiger, this is a very healthy thing. For modern people, in most situations, this is not usually very healthy as our responses are often inappropriate when we are hijacked by the amygdala.
Another reason why automatic thoughts are so powerful is they are directly linked to, if not originated by, the unconscious mind. I would argue that the rapid emotional responses caused by the amygdala are actually the generated by our unconscious mind. The self-talk that happens after the initial, unconscious response, which if it is cognitively distorted, escalates the emotional reactions, may not originate from the unconscious but it is often so hardly noticeable that it must at least form a bridge to the unconscious mind.
In other words, automatic thoughts are so powerful because we typically do not have conscious awareness or control over them. They act directly within our unconscious, which controls our emotions, and our physical responses to our environment. Even more powerful, the unconscious mind actually creates our perceptions of the world around us. It creates our maps of reality, in effect creating our reality.
The 10 most common cognitive distortions
The following is a very brief summary of the 10 most common cognitive distortions.
- All or nothing thinking. I also call this “black or white” thinking. Everything is all good, or all bad. There is nothing in between.
- Overgeneralization. You tend to view any single negative thing as an eternal pattern of negativity. If one bad thing happens, the world is obviously coming to an end.
- Disqualifying the positive. You can’t accept anything positive ever happening. So if something good happens, you always find a way to turn it into a negative thing, or explain why it was a fluke or it doesn’t count.
- Mental filter. You filter out all good qualities of something so you can focus on the negative. In this way everything becomes negative.
- Jumping to conclusions. You become a mind reader and a fortune teller. You interpret everything in a negative way without any supporting evidence.
- Catastrophizing or minimization. You blow minor things out of proportion, and minimize positive things.
- Emotional reasoning. You assume that your negative emotions and feelings reflect actual reality. If you feel bad, everything is bad.
- Should statements. You try and mold the world to your vision of reality, instead of accepting the world’s reality. A very common version of this in relationships is, “If he (or she) loved me he (or she) wouldn’t ….”
- Labeling and mislabeling. Overgeneralization in the extreme. You actually believe the overgeneralizations and make them reality in your own mind.
- Personalization. You take things personally. You become very defensive at even the slightest perceived criticism.
How we can control cognitive distortions
While the automatic responses of the amygdala can still be of benefit to us even in modern society, these responses can lead us to overreact, or react inappropriately. This is why another part of the brain, the orbital frontal cortex (OFC), developed as we evolved into social beings. The OFC is the rational mind. It’s the part of the mind that keeps us from overreacting to ordinary stress and challenges. It keeps the amygdala in check… usually.
But we must make an effort to actually engage the OFC. It does not often respond to our environment as automatically or as quickly as the amygdala seems to. The best way to start developing a habit of recognizing your automatic self-talk (thoughts) is to consciously think about the thoughts that are going through your mind at the very first sign that emotions are welling up inside you. This first sign is usually physical, as discussed above.
When you first recognize that your breathing is becoming rapid and shallow, or your temperature is rising, or your pulse is rising, etc., STOP. Take a deep breath, or two or three, until you feel yourself start to calm down, and listen to your inner self-talk. What is it telling you?
Most likely a large portion of that talk will fall into one of those 10 cognitive distortion categories. Once you can recognize the thoughts, try and label them. Are they emotional reasoning, catastrophizing, personalization, or one of the other cognitive distortions? Once you know what they are, then counter them with a “cooling” thought. Let your OFC do its work by bringing logic and rationale into those thinking patterns.
With time you will get very good at recognizing and cooling those hot automatic thoughts. In doing so you will become a more productive problem solver, and a much happier person as your reality will be filled with glasses that are half full.
Author Bio: Chris Akins is the author of the personal development blog ChrisAkinsdotCom. You can follow his blog and learn skills for successful living that Chris shares with all his readers.