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The Hazards of Unhealthy Thinking Traps


Understandably, many of us are missing our old lives. This August is unlike any other. The old normal of enjoying the summer abroad and holidaying in exotic locations are a thing of the past. Instead, this year it’s all about staycations and sunbathing in local parks whilst practising social distancing norms. And of course, adjusting to more localised lockdowns and restrictions as and when infections rise. As I talk to many of my friends, colleagues, classmates and clients I see a lot of us coming down with the ‘coronavirus fatigue’. We are desperately missing our old lives – family get-togethers, weddings, celebrations and graduations and to make matters worse, there’s so much uncertainty to jobs, economy, health and our general way of life in the upcoming months. It’s natural to feel this way, but fuelling excess negative feelings, and being stuck in negative thoughts can lead to rumination, which could set off cognitive errors or unhealthy thinking traps.

Rumination in psychology is defined as the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience. Persistent rumination about negative events can often lead to cognitive distortions and many mental health conditions like depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

Consider these thoughts:

“I should not lose this new job”

“My life is awful”

“I am totally useless”

“We will never recover from this pandemic.”

“I am going to stay stressed for the rest of my life.”

Have you found yourself lately indulging in thoughts like these? Well, if you have then you are not alone. So in today’s post, I want to highlight common thinking errors or traps to look out for as we tread through the next few months. These thinking errors are called cognitive distortions i.e. errors of processing in which an individual cognitively focuses on insufficient data and draws illogical conclusions with little or no empirical evidence. Here are a few thinking errors devised by researcher Stephen Palmer (2013) that I’d like to share:

  • Mind reading: Jumping to a foregone conclusion without the relevant information. For example – “If I get on the tube or use public transport, I will catch the virus and I will get so sick.”

  • All or nothing thinking: Overgeneralising and evaluating experiences on the basis of extremes. E.g. “I will never go on holiday again.” A person with an all or nothing thinking style will adopt a polarised style of thinking with no room for grey.

  • Blame: Not taking any responsibility and blaming somebody else or something else for issues. They often hold other people responsible for their pain. E.g. “Why can’t the government ever get this right? They should have always had all the measures in place.”

  • Personalisation: Individuals with this distortion often believe that everything others do or say is some kind of direct or personal reaction to them. They often compare themselves with others and even feel that they are directly responsible for an unhealthy event. E.g. “If the client rejects this team presentation, then it’s all my fault.”

  • Fortune telling: This thinking distortion often causes the individual to assume that they always know what the future holds. E.g. “I am sure I will be the first one to be laid off from my company.”

  • Catastrophisation or Magnification: This is a very common type of distortion especially in times of crisis and one to watch out for during these times. When a person engages in catastrophising they are constantly expecting a disaster to strike no matter what. They blow things out of proportion. E.g. “My boss looks angry, it must be my fault and I’m sure I will get fired today.”

  • Minimisation: The opposite of magnification, this distortion minimises the part one plays in a situation. For example, “I got a distinction in my paper, I’m sure they marked it liberally.”

  • Labelling: Using labels or global ratings to describe oneself and others. Instead of describing an error in the context of a specific situation, a person often attaches an unhealthy label. One of the most common labels – “I am a loser” or “they are such idiots”. Mislabelling involves describing an event or a person with language that is highly coloured and emotionally loaded. Instead of saying that someone is late to pick up their kids, a person many say – “she abandons her kids”.

  • Always being right: An individual with this distortion will continually put other people on trial to prove that their actions are on trial. They may go to any extent to demonstrate that “I am always right”. A person engaging in this style of thinking often lacks social intelligence and will go to any lengths to win an argument.

These are a few cognitive distortions that we need to look out for as inaccurate thoughts often reinforce negative thinking or emotions. Cognitive distortions are at the core of cognitive behavioural therapy and cognitive behavioural coaching. In the next post, I will write about a range of well-validated thinking skills you can adopt to tackle thinking errors. In the meantime, do try out this exercise this week.

Events + Thoughts = Feelings --------Action

  • Step 1: Pick an event that happened last week. It can be big or small.

  • Step 2: Write down what your thoughts were when that event occurred. Refer to the list above and write out any thoughts your felt are cognitive distortions.

  • Step 3: Your unhealthy thoughts brought about feelings. What were they?

  • Step 4: What action did you take and how did your thoughts and feelings influence your action?

Take care, my friends. Stay safe and stay strong.

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