Are My Thoughts Facts?

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Thoughts Are Not Facts

Thoughts play a very powerful role in our self concept and the way we feel. Cognitive distortions – or thinking errors – can occur when the thoughts we have about ourselves, other people, or situations do not match reality. Thinking errors usually first develop out of adverse situations that feel threatening and then often stick around to become automatic thoughts. These faulty patterns of thinking easily become repetitive and can get us caught in thinking loops or ruminations.

When automatic thoughts are also negative, they cause high anxiety, low sef esteem, difficulty trusting others, trouble in relationships, and under-performance in our work. Therefore, it is important to challenge automatic negative thoughts and irrational thinking errors in order to have a healthier mentality and feel better about ourselves and various situations.

Please note: It is normal and healthy to have some negative thoughts. The goal is not to eliminate cognitive discomfort. The goal is to be fair and rational so that you can acknowledge when a situation is not ok but avoid exaggerating it in your mind or slipping into a state of aimless rumination.

Cognitive restructuring is the umbrella term for identifying and then challenging automatic negative thoughts. Here are a few strategies from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that may be helpful in this process.

  1. Record Your Thoughts. Automatic thoughts occur almost as reflexes and can be hard to even notice until we feel awful in our emotions and bodies. That is why it’s helpful to talk about it with another person and/or write thoughts down in order to sort through what is really going on in your mind. A thought record is a simple way to identify and then move toward challenging thinking errors.
    1. Parse through your thoughts by writing down everything you are thinking, one thought per line. (It might be a lot.)
    2. Put a star next to the thought(s) you believe are automatic negative thoughts or thinking errors.
    3. Note the date, time of day, and situation/place
    4. Note any physical sensations, emotions, and behavioral changes taking place when the thought occurs.
  2. Socratic Questioning. Once a thinking error has been identified, the distortion can be called into question.
    1. Ask yourself the following questions about the distressing thought:
      1. Do I have evidence for this thought?
      2. Do I have evidence against this thought?
      3. Would a rational person believe this thought to be true?
      4. Would I say this out loud to another person about myself?
      5. Would I say this to another person about them?
    2. Rewrite the thought..
      1. Rewrite the thought using words that are rational and evidence-based.
  3. Decatastrophizing. This one is pretty simple and especially effective for worry-based thoughts. Simply ask and answer this question: “What is the worst thing that could happen?” over and over until you get to the end of your worry. You will likely notice the fact that even the worst-case scenario is a. Unlikely, and b. Manageable, even if it is scary or uncomfortable. Then you can use step “b” from above to rewrite the thought based on rationale and evidence instead of a worst-case scenario worry.
  4. Adopt Flexible Thinking. Thinking errors occur when we adopt a rigid way of thinking. The flipside is to stretch ourselves to see things from a different – or opposite – point of view. One way to reduce anxiety is to stop looking at the thought in a black and white way and, instead, to consider the entire spectrum of options and possibilities. In order to be cognitively flexible, avoid using words like “always”, “never”, “should”, and “must” to describe yourself, situations, or people in your mind.

 

Sometimes, the mere awareness of a thinking error or automatic negative thought is enough to eliminate it. Other distortions are more deeply ingrained, requiring extra work. Keep at it – it’s worth the work to dig out from under thinking errors and find a more rational, truthful version of the way you talk to and think about yourself.

Simply put: Don’t trust everything you think.

 

Blog written by Sentier therapist, Sarah Souder Johnson, MEd, LPCC

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