31 Days: Sad Thinking and how to turn it round

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

I’ve talked already about how we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve what we set out to do, how action can change our mood and perception and how thankfullness can help us stop focussing on what is wrong.

In an old post Haven for the Headwrecked I talk about how we can feel so overwhelmed, feel that no-one cares and how it’s hard to just get through. But I also link to a book that I’ve found tremendously helpful over time, especially in darker moments: Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns. This book is practical and from the reviews has helped countless people. Dr Burns starts by asking us to become aware of the following distorted thinking patterns. We are to write down our negative thoughts and identify which of the following kind of thought it is. It is tremendously helpful to become aware of the ways our particular thoughts are distorted. Have a look through the list.

Distorted Thinking Patterns (Cognitive Distortions) 

  • All-Or-Nothing Thinking – You look at things as black or white, perfection or failure, there is no middle ground.
  • Overgeneralization – You extrapolate from one negative situation or event and assume that every situation will be the same.
  • Mental Filter – You pick out the negative aspect of a situation, or the one thing you got wrong, you focus in on the small criticisms rather than the overwhelmingly positive reaction to your work, for example.
  • Disqualifying the positive – The good things don’t count. Maybe you think they were a fluke, won’t happen again, were not down to you or don’t make enough of a difference.
  • Jumping to conclusions – You assume the worst of situations and people, you think you know what the (negative) outcome will be.
    A. Mind reading. You assume that someone thinks badly of you without finding out if your assumption is true.
    B. The fortune teller error. You predict that negative outcomes will occur and that there is nothing you can do to change what is already set in stone.
  • Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization–  You exaggerate the importance of slip ups or things that go against you making mountains out of molehills. You ignore evidence of your own positive and capable qualities and the flaws or setbacks of others.
  • Emotional Reasoning – We’ve talked before about whether emotions or actions come first and the importance of checking whether your mood is really related to something like hunger or anger. Emotional reasoning assumes that because you are sad or mad there must be a good reason for it. You feel it, so it must be true.
  • Should Statements – By motivating yourself with shoulds you are beating yourself up with feelings of guilt and you are setting yourself up with expectations of others that will lead to anger and resentment. Should is like a stick to beat yourself with rather than a positive intention to move towards another behaviour.
  • Labeling and Mislabeling – By labellng and mislabeling yourself or others ‘What a loser, ‘ ‘He’s a nasty, lazy man’ you are emotionally charging your view of yourself or others and reinforcing a caricature of yourself/others that will colour all your future actions and interactions. What was that black and white movie with the famous line ‘There’s no such thing as a bad boy.’ I recently was at a talk where the lady said that some people in a session she was running had labelled themselves as impatient. They noted they were impatient for 30 minutes a day. Even though it was a small percentage of the day and they were patient for the rest, they had labelled themselves negatively. With that label they are expecting themselves to be impatient next time.
  • Personalization – ‘It’s all my fault!’ Have you ever heard or said this? How come you are the centre of the universe now? Sometimes we blame ourselves for things that are not wholly or at all in our control.

Merely by being aware that we are thinking in a distorted way we can readjust our thoughts to take in both sides of the story, or tone down the distortion. There are very many exercises in the book covering identifying these distortions, dealing with perfectionism and procrastination etc but one simple exercise I found fantastic was the simply talk back/write back exercise where you act as your own devil’s advocate.

Mental Exercise

1: You write in one column exactly what you are thinking and how you are saying it to yourself. Eg ‘You are useless, you haven’t finished your novel yet, you should have finished it by now, you’re lazy, you are a failure, Anne is far more successful than you.  You will NEVER succeed etc etc etc. (Sounds horrifying out loud doesn’t it!)

2: Write down a percentage of how bad you feel on the back of that statement. eg 80%.

3: Next write down which cognitive distortions you have in the statement (there are several there – all or nothing, labelling, should statements among others.)  Then write back your answer, readjusting the thoughts to be less distorted. eg. You are not useless, you’ve just hit an awkward bit in the novel and need more information on how to figure it out. You need to reassess your deadline but you have a good chance of completing it with an additional week. You’re a busy person and have accomplished many other things at the same time as writing this book. Anne is finished now but that doesn’t mean you won’t be finished within a short time.You can succeed in finishing the book if you get help with solving your plot problem, write each day for an hour, take 2 days in January to work on it.

You could also list your achievements to date here to boost yourself!

4: Finally, having written back to yourself you write down how negative you now feel eg 70%

If you are in a bad patch you follow this practise everyday, listing four or five of your most pressing negative thoughts and answering them. The same ones may crop up again and again and that tells you something. By practising talking back to your inner life critic you can build up mental resilience. By understanding the negative distortions you can see how your thinking is biased and not based on truth or evidence of your abilities or characteristics.

These are widely used teqniques in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which has found to be very effective in treating depressive thoughts. The book is well worth the purchase or there may be a CBT course on offer in a local clinic. Some places are now offering specially CBT courses for those whose self-esteem and confidence has been knocked by unemployment, just Google for your local area.

Small things can make a huge difference

Life can be very hard and there are many tragedies, losses and setbacks that can send people a little bit off the track with how they think and feel. In turn we can then feel bad for feeling bad, especially if we feel our moods and behaviours are impacting on others. We may also blame others for their apparent indifference but they may be unsure how to help or they may reach out but we’re not ready to accept their help.

Problems and setbacks seem huge. Sometimes they are huge and go on for a long period of time and it’s hard to find resilience. Sometimes a depression might be something that needs medical intervention before there is a chink where we can implement mood bolstering habits. But sometimes a very small thing can make a difference, a kindness to the self, permission to stop, these pep talks against negative thinking, thankfullness or writing down our achievements, smiling, finding ways to interact with others out of fun and acceptance rather than resentment and conflict. A walk with a mixed up child, a spa day for yourself in your own home, a cuddle on the sofa, a movie, life’s tiny pleasures – these in isolation and by accumulation can make a massive difference to our experience.

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6 comments

  1. Thank you Alison for a great blog. I’m going to try and persuade my husband to read this book. I told him over the Festive period that I was going to ban the ‘should’ word.

  2. Wonderful information here! At one time or another I’ve fallen into all these distorted thinking patterns, usually several at once. It took me a long time to whittle away at them. The writing exercise is good and I’ve done versions of it myself. Getting my feelings and thoughts out and down on paper always help me.

    An interesting thing happened in the last few years. Around the time I was facing some of my darkest thought barriers, my oldest daughter ran into problems at school, problems with friends, etc. and had the same thoughts and feelings. It angered me that she had to go through this and I found myself giving her advice I stubbornly didn’t listen to for years. For her, I could say, “I’ve lived through it, too, and this helped.” That’s when I started making better progress on my own.

  3. Good post. A big yes to implementing small positives. I find mood is influenced a lot by tiredness — if someone is prone to depressive episodes then it can act as a trigger, but even if not, it can be such a drag — it’s hard to be enthusiastic and excited when you’re almost too tired to sit up. We all get that way though — through work, pregnancy, parenthood, illness, sitting in phone queues, or the H-word. (Yes, housework, i do it occasionally…) Tricky to find a life balance some days, so those little positives are really vital. Cup of tea. Two minutes with your back against a radiator. A hug. A kind tweet. A whole bag of Haribos and a Cornish pasty… oh, no, sorry that was lunch. But still… nice ;D x

  4. Great blog, Alison. I was just reading a book today as part of my professional development about helping children who are stressed and anxious. There were lots of similarities to what you have here. And speaking as a ‘worry wart’ (my grown up children’s word for me) who has needed professional help for anxiety and depression your writing here resonates with me. Keep up your excellent work here. 🙂

  5. Thanks for taking the time and energy to share this useful information, Alison. I read this book an d got a lot out of it. Thanks for the refresher–it takes time and repetition to change the lifetime of unhelpful messages in our heads!

    1. Yes, it takes lots of time and practice and if we’re already worn out we’re less likely to do it when we need to so we need to build resilience ahead of the time.

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