The lights are out and it’s time for bed, but you’re wide awake. Your eyes are open and your brain just won’t turn off. You can’t stop thinking about what happened today, and you worry about what tomorrow could bring. You toss and turn as you replay the day’s events. An hour passes, “I need to get to sleep, I have seven hours left.” Another hour passes, “Now I’ve lost another hour, I only have a few left!” As you stress and worry, you can feel the moments pass and the night slip away. “The night is awful. Work tomorrow will be awful. Everything is totally out of control and nothing ever goes my way.”
If something like this has happened to you, then you know all too well what it’s like to have your brain become hijacked by “thought distortions” or “stinking thinking.” Think about wearing sunglasses: what you see takes on the colour of the lens tint. Similarly, your interpretation of an event can be coloured by a thought distortion. Here are a few common ones:
- Perfectionism: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do a good job. It’s a different story when you believe that you have to do everything right all the time.
- Catastrophizing: This is when you make a mountain out of a mole hill.
- Jumping to conclusions: We call this “mind reading.” It involves acting as though you already know what the outcome of a situation is when you don’t.
- All or nothing: As the name suggests, it’s either one or the other and nothing in between.
We all experience these thought distortions from time to time, but what differs is our response. Some folks can notice that they are engaging in extreme thinking right away, whereas others may need time to restore balance. Our thoughts are really important because they are connected to our feelings. When we have extreme thoughts, we tend to have big feelings too. That’s not to say that strong emotions are bad – emotions are what make us human. But when we don’t recognize our thoughts as extreme, we are vulnerable to bad behaviour, poor decision making and extreme thoughts that can snowball and become bigger.
Noticing extreme thinking can be tricky, but you can learn to become more aware of what’s going on with your brain. We call this “metacognition,” or put another way, “thinking about thinking.”
Here’s how to stand up to thought distortions:
- Try to identify the thought you are having and isolate it. Surf the urge to judge the thought, just notice it and if possible, notice how intense your thoughts and feelings are in that moment (on a scale of one to ten).
- Ask yourself if the thought fits the situation. Is it reasonable to think this way given the situation? Become a detective and look at all the evidence. If the thought is not reasonable for the situation, you might be experiencing some thought distortions.
- Identify the thought distortion at play and take a moment to find a more reasonable way of thinking about the situation.
- Now, do a quick scan and notice how intense your thoughts and feelings are.
Let’s try this again. The lights are out and it’s time for bed, but you’re wide awake. Your eyes are open and your brain just won’t turn off. You can’t stop thinking about that bad encounter with your boss today. You take a deep breath and identify the bothersome thought. You believe you are going to get fired. You ask yourself if that thought fits the situation or if you are making assumptions and catastrophizing the situation. It has been a tough week with the news of a pandemic and a lot of sick calls coming into the office. She was abrupt, but she did say she’d talk to you tomorrow and she’s usually reasonable. If you were in her position, you might feel stressed and do the same. You take another deep breath and close your eyes. You’ve broken free from the thought distortion and it’s time to get some rest.
Standing up to thought distortions takes time and practice. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a thought distortion and a challenging or uncomfortable thought. To help develop these skills, YW Calgary has launched a new online skill-building tool called Mindfulicity. Mindfulicity offers bite-sized modules that help people learn how to regulate their emotions and build conflict management in the workplace and at home. You can try our Coping with Uncertainly module for free for a limited time!