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.
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:
- Notice the upsetting thoughts that are running through your mind, and write them down.
- Search the list of common cognitive distortions for any distortions that are lingering in these thoughts.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?