So you read the last entry and know all about the power of thoughts, now what? If your thoughts are powerful enough to effect how you feel, it is important to know what they are and even more important to change them if you don’t like how you are feeling. Very often when you are feeling an uncomfortable emotion the thoughts behind it are distorted.
Thought distortions are a way of thinking that stems from the wells of negativity and self-doubt that are in everyone and are fed by depression, addiction, anxiety, fractured or abusive relationships, or just being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (HALT). Everyone has instances when their thoughts stray into one of the categories of distortions described below and if your mind is fit you can recognize the distortion and shift your thinking. However if you are impacted by deeper mental health issues the distorted thoughts will feel more like The Truth and it will be more difficult to shift them.
Steps to Healthy Thinking
First: Know what your thoughts are. One way to tune in to your thoughts is to work backwards when you are feeling a powerful emotion. Emotions are more visceral, this is why they are also called feelings, you feel something in your body that gets your attention. Once you recognize the emotion, you can step back and ask yourself what are the thoughts? This process can be developed by honing your mindfulness skills.
Second: Evaluate the thought. Once you have identified the thought causing the painful emotion you need to ask yourself is this thought based in reality or is this a thought distortion. It is helpful to know the common categories of thought distortions, so they are listed below. It is also very helpful to ask not just yourself but other people in your life, especially if you are impacted by deeper mental health issues or relationship difficulties.
Third: Challenge and shift the distorted thought. Ask yourself, how true is this thought, 25%? 80? The closer it is to 100% the more difficult and more minor the shift will be, but there is always room for a shift. Here’s an example. Original, distorted thought: “It hurts to swallow, I must have throat cancer”, 60% true. Shifted thought: “There is a slight possibility that my sore throat is cancer but it is more likely an infection, just in case I will keep track of my symptoms and see a doctor is it gets worse”, 100% true.
Fourth: Compare your emotions before and after shifting the thought. In the example above the person thinking the original thought likely felt extremely worried and scared and after shifting the distorted thought to a thought more based in reality he likely felt some relief, maybe still a bit of fear but with much less intensity.
Fifth: Practice. Learning to tune in, monitor and shift your thoughts takes practice. Some ways to develop the skill are to keep a written thought record listing the thought distortion, truth% and emotion, the shifted thought and the new emotion; be aware of your most common thought distortion and when it enters your mind shift your attention away from it and into the present moment by snapping a rubberband against your wrist or using one of your 5 senses; write out a shifted thought to counter your most common thought distortion and put it up somewhere you will see it everyday, like your bathroom mirror. Beyond these do-it-yourself tips, it can be very useful to explore the wells of negativity that are continuing to spawn thought distortions; this is hard work and it is valuable to have the help and support of a therapist.
Categories of Thought Distortions
Should Statements: I should go to that party.
Labeling: I am a total loser.
All or Nothing/Black and White: If this date does not go well I am giving up on ever finding a boyfriend.
Minimization/Discounting the Positive: My boss only liked my presentation because she was in a good mood.
Jumping to Conclusions: I have a sore throat it must be cancer.
Catastrophication/Magnification: I didn’t remember to pay my rent, this is the worst thing that could ever happen.
Personalizing/Blaming: This event went badly and it is all my fault.
Mind Reading: He didn’t stop to chat because he doesn’t like me.
Mental Filter: One person made a negative comment about my haircut (five people complimented it) so nobody likes my haircut.
Emotional Reasoning: I feel scared so this must be dangerous.