If a police car pulls up outside your home, what are your first thoughts? Someone’s had an accident? What’s that boy been up to this time? Oh, good – they’ve finally arrived? I wonder what they want? Several things will influence how you respond. If you’ve called for help, you may be relieved to see that car. If you’ve had run-ins with the law, you could be filled with apprehension and so on. Your circumstances, experiences and thinking patterns all play a role in your responses. Our patterns of thinking develop in childhood, and most of them are fine, but all of us have faulty thinking at times. Our thoughts play a significant role in both creating and maintaining anxiety in us, so this week, I’ll briefly explain some of these faulty patterns – also known as cognitive distortions. Next week, we will look at some ways to question and challenge these ways of thinking.
As I describe each one, I may include an example in brackets of the sort of thoughts a person might have. Catastrophizing (or magnifying) is the name given to the sort of thinking where a person thinks worse-case scenario (Oh no, the doctor has asked me to come and see her – I must have cancer!) Overgeneralization is when a person thinks because something happened once before, it will happen again and again (I messed up that talk, I’ll never be able to get up and give a good talk.) Black-or-white thinking is also referred to as all-or-nothing thinking and occurs when we think we must be perfect and if we’re not perfect, we’re a failure (I did not get an A+ on that test – I failed.) Personalization is where we blame ourselves for somebody else’s behaviour (Dad’s angry and it’s all my fault). Filtering happens when we dwell only on the negative and discount the positive in a situation or somebody’s comments. Labelling is a lot like overgeneralization where we actually negatively describe ourselves or others (I am a complete failure!) Mind reading is the name given to when we believe we know what somebody else is thinking. Using “should” and “must” statements is evidence of a person having narrow views of themselves and their world (I should be able to be superwoman and do it all; I must win that race.) Finally, control fallacy is where a person blames others for all of their mistakes and problems
Engaging in distorted thinking patterns has been proven to contribute greatly to a person’s anxiety and stress levels. The first step in overcoming is to identify patterns and the next step is to question or challenge them. It might be a helpful exercise to see if you or your child can identify any faulty thinking in yourselves.
Source: Bret A Moore, Taking Control of Anxiety: Small Steps for Getting the Best of Worry, Stress and Fear. APA, 2014.