The theater throbbed with sound. Hundreds of audience members began to fill the seats of Alyssa’s high school auditorium, ready to take in her version of Maria in the timeless musical, The Sound of Music. Behind the curtain, the tiny brunette shivered in her blue and white costume, her hands clamming up with cold sweat. She watched nervously as the seats filled. Right now, she couldn’t tell if the orchestra warming up was louder than the sound of her pounding heart.
“I’m going to suck,” she told herself silently, her anxiety building. “My voice is going to crack. They’re going to walk out. I’m going to forget the words. I suck. I’m a terrible actress. I’m a worse singer. My poor parents. How am I going to look at anyone in the eye after tonight?”
In another part of the city, Brandon was getting ready for a date with a woman he’d met through a mutual friend. Brandon could hardly believe his luck that she’d said yes when he asked her out, because he found her so astonishingly beautiful. When he offered to take her out for dinner, he was sure she’d say no, and was actually speechless for a few minutes when she quickly accepted. Tonight, as he threw on his favorite pair of jeans and black t-shirt (to hide the nervous sweating, he’d later kid), he practiced in his mind what ‘cool’ thing he’d say in response when she turned him down for a second date.
“She feels sorry for me. I’m like a pity date,” he said to himself as he slid in the car. “She’s obviously a really nice person and just can’t say no to a pathetic loser like me.
“I’m going to spill something on her. I’m going to sound so stupid and boring. She’s going to hate every second of this. She’s going to regret ever having said yes.”
Around the block from his date’s house, Brandon pulled over and threw up.
What are automatic negative thoughts (ANTs)?
All of us, at any given time, fall prey to what mental health professionals call cognitive distortions. These are skewed perceptions of reality, falsehoods we tend to believe. They’re negative, damaging interpretations of what’s going on around us, which we base on poor, unsubstantiated assumptions. When we let ourselves get swayed by these cognitive distortions, it can cause us intense, sometimes severe, distress.
As we mentioned, everyone blows things out of proportion now and again. It’s when we consistently and persistently distort reality that it can become dangerous.
Experts warn that when we participate and listen to self-defeating thoughts, like “I’m a stupid person,” or “Why does nothing ever good happen for me?” we give way to self-defeating emotions, like anxiety or even physical pain. Self-defeating thoughts, which turn to self-defeating emotions, then have the power to lead us into self-defeating actions. We may commit small negative behaviors, like playing hooky from school or shopping for something we really can’t afford, but if the negative thoughts-negative feelings-negative action cycle continues and is left unchecked or untreated, it can lead to more serious conditions, like depression, substance abuse, or an anxiety disorder. Read here about substance abuse.
The shortcut to distortion
Did you know that the subconscious mind can absorb up to 20 million bits of information in a single second? That’s a lot of information! The conscious mind actually only focuses on between seven to 40 bits of information because it can’t handle the 20 million. Experts call this a ‘mental shortcut.’
These shortcuts are designed to help us from going crazy on sensory overload. Can you imagine trying to process 20 million bits of information? (We know what you’re thinking – 40 bits of information probably already feels like 20 million, on a good day!) These shortcuts are meant to help us – having shortcuts means we can judge situations around us pretty quickly.
But because they’re exactly that – shortcuts – there’s a lot of room for error when we’re judging situations. We perceive reality based on a fraction of the big picture. So if any of that information we’re processing is unbalanced in any way (like if we tend to listen to the negative stuff more than the positive), we’re going to end up favoring the nasty end of our perception of reality.
The 8 common distortions
Following are eight of the most common cognitive distortions observed by professionals. You may recognize one or more of them.
Jumping to conclusions. Picture this. You’re at the office, and a colleague pops his head in your office. “Hey,” he says quietly. “Mr. Smith wants to see you in his office right away.” Immediately, you feel your stomach drop to the floor. You start thinking about the previous week, the previous month, the previous quarter. Did you make your sales target? Did he find out you came in late once last week without letting your supervisor know? Did you send the wrong email to the wrong person? Oh, no. Is this it? Are you getting fired?
Judging a situation based on assumptions, instead of relying on fact, is jumping to conclusions. Learn more about depression and impulse control disorder.
Mental filtering. The party you’ve thrown for your sister’s 30th birthday has gone off without a hitch. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, and people keep pouring into in. A friend of your sister’s dances over to you and says, “Great party! You could’ve probably ordered more food though. There are so many people here.”
Your chest tightens. You don’t hear, “Great party,” and “There are so many people here.” All you hear is, “You’re a terrible party planner. How could you not have ordered more food?”
When you pay attention to the negative details (even when there are more positive ones), that’s mental filtering.
Magnifying. The arena is full. You’re sure you read somewhere that this arena holds 100,000 people. You now regret coming to this game because you’ll bet your bottom dollar that it’ll take hours to get out of the parking lot. What if there’s an earthquake? What if you get sick and you can’t find the restroom? Why did you ever agree to buy tickets to this?
That’s magnifying – when you search for and focus on the negative aspects in a situation.
Minimizing. You just got your exam results back, and you scored second highest in the class – 86%. The teacher tells you all that this was definitely a challenging test, and he made it purposely difficult. The majority of the class has failed, and even your best friend, who studied through four sleepless nights, tanked hopelessly. Everyone is patting you on the back for doing so well, but all you can see is the missing 14%.
Minimizing is when you dismiss the positive aspects of a situation.
Personalizing. The family is gathered around the dinner table. It’s a bi-weekly Sunday night tradition, when everyone gets together to discuss the goings-on in everyone’s lives. This week, your brother Brad is sharing his son’s successes – he’s recently graduated from college and got a great job offer the day after graduation. “It’s because he worked so hard in school,” Brad says proudly. “That’s why he got an offer so quickly.”
You never graduated college, and Brad’s comment hurts you deeply. You think it’s a disguised dig at you.
Personalizing is when you believe that everything others do, or say, is somehow directed at you.
Blaming. For some reason, you don’t stay at any one job for very long. You’re deep in debt, and your relationships are always in crisis.
“It’s because my parents never cared about me,” you tell people, in an effort to explain why your life is the way it is. “They didn’t love me. They neglected me. My life is in shambles because of them.”
Blaming is putting responsibility on someone else so you don’t have to solve your own problems. It’s denying that you are in control over your own behavior, feelings and actions.
Overgeneralizing. Over the past ten years, you’ve put on a significant amount of weight. You’ve tried the gym. You’ve tried seeing a bariatric specialist. You’ve even tried hypnosis. And nothing works. “I’ve tried everything, and nothing ever helps,” you tell yourself (and anyone else who’ll listen). “So I don’t try anymore.” You stop working out, keep overeating, and continue to tell yourself you’re overweight for life.
See the danger in that? It’s not atypical to experience setbacks in life, but when we choose to hang on to any disappointments we’ve had along the way, the more likely it is that those thoughts will influence us into believing that’s our forever truth.
Emotional reasoning. There’s a job posting at your place of work. It’s actually your dream position. If you could have written the job description yourself, this would be it! But despite having demonstrated through the years that you’re the right person for the job, you believe you’d never even be considered. You feel unworthy of the position, and think that even a newcomer with zero job experience would do a better job at the position than you would.
Emotional reasoning is when your reaction to something defines your reality. Meaning that how you feel about something makes it true for you, no matter how illogical it might be. Learn about the signs of intermittent explosive disorder.
How do I stop these distortions?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by what you just read, stop and breathe for a second. Consider this: these thoughts are normal. Our ancestors survived by being on the lookout for threats (“Watch out! Sabertooth tiger nearby!”) so over time, we’ve evolved to look out for potential problems, fix them as they come, and learn from our mistakes. It starts with the imagination, which helps us think about those possible problems and how we can get rid of them.
But the problem is that our imagination, while it can serve to protect us, can steer us in the wrong direction too. If we are constantly thinking about problems, we’ve probably dug ourselves into a negative thought generating hole, which means that our negative thinking has become a habit.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the gold standard for releasing these automatic negative thoughts. CBT doesn’t dwell, or focus on past life experiences. It helps you recognize your negative thoughts and take control of them, instead of them controlling you.
That said, there are some things you can do at home, right now, to help you move away from these pesky ANTs and toward more positive, healthy thoughts.
- Meditation, mindfulness and gratitude are three surefire ways to start feeling better today.
- Turn your “should” and “shouldn’t” statements into more positive phrases. Instead of saying, “I really should go to the gym,” try saying, “I’m looking forward to working out today.”
- Go from ANTs to PETs (Positive Empowering Thoughts). Instead of saying, “I’m a terrible cook,” try “I love learning new recipes. I can’t wait to find a dish that I can master.”
- Identify your inner critic. If you had a friend who constantly called you, every day, with the same old negative story, how long could you keep answering your friend’s call? Not long, probably. Consider the stories you tell yourself, and stop owning those thoughts.
If you need more guidance on how to stop automatic negative thoughts, visit us at www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.
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