Break Your Downward Emotional Spiral

Your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can form a vicious feedback loop, sending you into a downward emotional spiral. You get a bad review from your boss, and start to feel upset. This negative emotion brings on thoughts about when you’ve made mistakes at your job, and you feel even worse. You now start imagining your boss firing you, and your mood sinks into despair.

Let’s dissect what’s going on here. An event triggers an upsetting thought, and the thought causes negative emotion. With your mood now lowered, upsetting thoughts are more likely to come to mind. Soon, another upsetting thought does occur, which causes more negative emotion, and further upsetting thoughts. Anxiety provokes worried thoughts, which themselves produce further anxiety. Sadness leads to despairing thoughts, which provoke greater sadness.

But negative emotions don’t just cause negative thoughts, they cause excessively negative thoughts, that reflect a distorted picture of reality. Anxiety causes us to overestimate how dangerous things are, depression makes our situation seem hopeless, and anger makes small slights seem like major attacks. In other words, negative emotions cause us to think in distorted ways that make these same emotions grow.

Negative thoughts lower your mood, lowered mood causes negative thoughts… art by nightmares06

One way out of this downward emotional spiral is to use reason to reduce the mood lowering effect of negative thoughts by challenging any irrational or exaggerated content lurking in them. The earlier in the process you can apply reasoning, the better, because the more upset you are, the more difficult it is to reason effectively, and the more your thoughts are likely to be distorted.

A useful approach to reasoning yourself into a better mood is to pinpoint the negative distortions in thought that your emotions are causing, and then rephrase your thoughts more realistically. If you do this successfully your thoughts won’t lower your emotional state, and in this less negative mood state, further negative thoughts will be less likely to occur. This realization and those mentioned above are some of the powerful insights to come out of the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

But how do you go about finding distortions in your thinking? Psychologists like David Burns have made it easy for us by categorizing the most common cognitive distortions that occur when people are upset. These are listed at the bottom of this page in an easy to consume form, and you can also download a quick reference here. Not only does this list of common distortions provide a fascinating glimpse into the content of the depressed and anxious mind, it serves as a useful tool that we can leverage when emotional.

So when you’re feeling upset, apply the following procedure:

  1. Notice the upsetting thoughts that are running through your mind, and write them down.
  2. Search the list of common cognitive distortions for any distortions that are lingering in these thoughts.
  3. For each thought, generate a more realistic and productive one. These new thoughts should address or refute any distortions in the originals. Say these new thoughts to yourself, and confirm that you believe them.

Click here for a worksheet to help you do this exercise.

There is a good chance that just carrying out the exercise will immediately improve your mood. Even better, repeated practice may start to permanently alter your thinking, so that you’re less likely to produce cognitive distortions in the first place. Methods like this one are commonly employed by psychologists when treating severely anxious and depressed people, with good effect, but this technique also works well for milder forms of negative emotion.

So the next time you’re suffering from negative emotions and want to reduce your pain, you’ll now have an exercise you can apply to do something about it.

 

Below is the list of common cognitive distortions.


 

1. All or nothing thinking

Seeing things in extreme, black or white categories.

Since I’ve never had a girlfriend, I must be a loser.

If I fail this exam, I’m worthless.

If was actually good, I wouldn’t have made that mistake.

 

2. Overgeneralization

Seeing bad things as being part of a pattern that will inevitably repeat.

Just my luck! Bad things are always happening to me.

There I go again, screwing up another good lead.

Turned yet down again. I’m never going to have a girlfriend.

 

3. Focusing on the negative

Paying attention to the bad parts of a thing while ignoring the good.

I may have done well on my other exams, but I got a B in math.

This war proves that humanity is fundamentally evil.

The wedding would have been nice, but the waiters were rude.

 

4. Disqualifying the positive

Discrediting positive aspects or turning them into negatives.

The special effects were good, but not as good as I hoped.

He said he admired my intelligence, but was only being nice.

It’s true I got an A in that class, but that one was easy.

 

5. Jumping to conclusions

Making negative guesses about the future or what others think.

If they cared about me they would have come to my party.

He must be angry at me since he didn’t return my phone call.

I just know that they are going to reject my paper submission.

 

6. Magnification

Exaggerating the scale or significance of an event.

I’m never going to be happy again without her.

I can’t believe I’m filing for bankruptcy. My life is over.

If I don’t get this job, I’m going to be completely screwed.

 

7. Emotional Reasoning

Using your feeling about things as proof they really are that way.

Feel ashamed  ->  Assume you’ve done wrong  ->  “I shouldn’t have done that”

Feel angry  ->  Assume the other person was in the wrong  ->  “You asshole”

Feel rejected  ->  Assume no one wants to see you  ->  “No one likes me”

 

8. Should and Must statements

Telling yourself that you/things should be a certain way.

I can’t make mistakes like this again!

She shouldn’t treat me that way.

Waiters should always show respect to their customers.

 

9. Labeling

Oversimplifying the traits of yourself or others using emotional wording. 

I’m such a pig for eating all that ice cream!

That bitch at the movie theatre was so rude.

Only an idiot would make that mistake.

 

10. Blaming

Placing blame on yourself or others when the blamed person isn’t really responsible.

If I were a good mother, my daughter would be happier.

If you had been more careful, I wouldn’t have biked into you!

Still jobless after a month of searching. What’s wrong with me?

 

 

6 thoughts on “Break Your Downward Emotional Spiral

  1. L2D says:

    “10. Blaming

    Placing blame on yourself or others when the blamed person isn’t really responsible.”

    The word “really” is a warning sign that a sentence might reflect an equivocation in understanding, where one label symbolizes distinct concepts.

    “If you had been more careful, I wouldn’t have biked into you!”

    This is simply a counterfactual. Its truth would not necessarily mean that blame is appropriate.

    Blame is a human construct like a fine or prison time. We commit to assigning it to entities that do certain disapproved of things to shape future behavior. It isn’t something simply deserved by people who could have prevented something bad from happening if they had done differently.

    We may choose not to blame people whose actions are necessary conditions for bad things to happen so that we can concentrate blame on even more disfavored people. We may choose to blame people who couldn’t have done things differently.

    An recent example of the first case is the mother who ignored her ex-husband’s violent threats to her kids, only to have him murder them. Comments in the news covering that are often careful to say she isn’t to blame when criticizing her judgment. An example of the second case is the Soviet experience against the German invasion in 1941. Military commanders who retreated were blamed more or less regardless of whether or not they could have stood fast, particularly if it was hard to determine whether or not they could have.

    “Correct” assignments and distributions of blame are not written into the fabric of the universe. How much to berate victims who have suffered, in an attempt to deter future people from making stupid decisions that make it possible for them to be victimized, is a normative question.

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      You’re absolutely right that blame is a human construct. Here, unproductive blame is being considered with respect to psychological health, not “correctness”. It is frequently counterproductive to strongly blame yourself or others for harms done unintentionally, when the person couldn’t have predicted that those harms would occur and did not desire that they occur. There are exceptions, surely, but this is a pretty good rule of thumb.

      1. L2D says:

        It is frequently counterproductive to strongly blame yourself or others for harms done intentionally, when the person could have predicted that those harms would occur and/or did desire that they occur.

        Recognizing the nature of blame is a way to weaken the impulse to do it. Blame is not the way it feels: necessary.

        Your example somewhat implies that the truth of the fact “If you had been more careful, I wouldn’t have biked into you!” would make them to blame.

        It is true that those words are spoken by people thinking both that they are not to blame if someone else is to blame and that if the other person could have predicted those harms would occur, they are to blame. But the important thing is that it doesn’t really matter. There is a most useful amount of blame to feel that depends largely on things besides one’s intuition about how much blame is deserved.

        The rules of the road are such that both a driver and a pedestrian need to be careless for there to be an accident. “If you had been looking, I/you wouldn’t have hit you/me!” is frequently true.

        I think blame is different than other things you mention. For example, “Only an idiot would make that mistake,” is usually unproductive to think, but might actually be true. In contrast, “I am to blame,” is wrong if it is unproductive.

  2. Trent Fowler says:

    Spencer,

    I like your brand of intelligent self-help! You said:

    “But negative emotions don’t just cause negative thoughts, they cause excessively negative thoughts, that reflect a distorted picture of reality.”

    How do you square this assertion with depressive realism, the phenomenon in psychology research in which depressed individuals have a more realistic opinion about themselves and likely outcomes of future events? It would appear that humans have a built-in optimism; something like 90% or people feel that they are above average in pretty much every category, 95% of professors feel like they’re in the top 5% of professors, etc.

    Now you specifically said that negative emotions cause excessively negative thoughts. Fair enough, but it at least seems possible that a small dose of negative emotions might actually counteract the rosy glow with which we naturally see the world.

    Do you think we can learn to see the world how it is without being unhappy about it?

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      Hey Trent, thanks for the excellent comment. It’s true that depressed people can be more realistic in certain ways (I discuss excessive self confidence here). But depression does cause people to have significant distortions that people who are not depressed are not as likely to have (for instance, systematically assuming that you will not enjoy activities that you will in fact enjoy). So negative emotion does cause distortions in thinking, even though there are certain cases where it can counter act pre-existing distortions like excessive confidence. Making yourself depressed would certainly not be an advisable strategy for making yourself have truer beliefs about the world!

  3. Emaleah says:

    This is really great! I highly recommend The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt for more: http://www.happinesshypothesis.com/

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