Mind Over Matter
Most of life is not "completely great" or "horribly bad." But when we are stressed, we are more likely to think in absolutes. These kinds of thoughts often include the words "always" and "never." For example, you might tell yourself, "I will never feel good again!" Or, "Bad things always happen to me!"
Are either of these statements really true?
Similar to "all-or-nothing" thinking, this is where we tell ourselves that the worst will happen or that a situation is horrific and intolerable. Do you ever find yourself thinking of the worst-case scenario and then believing or even acting as if it will happen? For example, you hear there is a chance of rain on your day off and you tell yourself, "Now my entire day will be ruined."
Having unrealistic expectations
Often we fall into the trap of trying to motivate ourselves or others by focusing on what must or should be done in any given situation. Consequently, we end up feeling guilty when we don't live up to our unrealistic expectations. And when we do it to others, we end up angry. So we must stop and ask, "Are we blaming ourselves and others for things that aren't under our or their control? Are our expectations reasonable?"
For example, the person in front of you in line at the grocery store has a huge load of groceries and is taking forever. You get angry and frustrated, thinking, "This is unfair—if she knew she was going to buy this much she shouldn't have come during the busiest time of the day!"
Discounting the positive
In this kind of thinking, you focus on the negative aspect of a situation and completely discount the positive. In fact, when your experience contradicts your negative outlook, you even go as far as to reject or discredit the positive experience by saying, "It doesn't count." For example, you bake five pies for a school bake sale, and when the crust on the last one burns, you tell yourself, "I stink at this." When your pies get rave reviews, you think, "They're just saying that to be nice, I really ruined those pies."
In this type of thinking, you draw conclusions about a situation without knowing all the facts. You either act as a mind reader ("I just know he didn't call because he doesn't like me.") or as a forecaster ("He won't like me, I just know it, so there is no use going on the blind date."). This style of thinking is one of the most common ways we stress ourselves out. We assume something is negative without any evidence at all!
Avoid negative thinking
The first step to changing how we are thinking about stress is to pay attention to our stressful thoughts and see if we are falling into any pitfalls of negative thinking.
It is important to remember that the goal of challenging negative thinking isn't to simply replace our negative thoughts with positive ones. That would be unrealistic since the positive thoughts would not be believable to us. Instead, the goal is to think in a more balanced and rational way so that we feel more balanced. Challenging negative thinking requires us to try to come up with a more balanced view that is believable.
Sometimes simply noticing that we are engaging in negative thinking is enough to help us thinking more clearly. At other times, we need to spend more time actually challenging these negative thinking patterns. We can do this by simply writing down our negative thoughts and then trying to come up with evidence for why they aren't true. Sometimes we might even need to check out the facts with someone else because, particularly with mind reading, getting more information can often help change how we feel about a situation.
Challenge negative thinking
Here is an example of how to challenge negative thinking once you recognize that you are doing it:
- The Situation
You walk into your office in the morning and say hello to your assistant and she says nothing in return. You feel hurt.
- Your Possible Interpretations
A) Mind reading: "I have done something to make her angry."
B) Catastrophic thinking: "This is going to be a horrible day."
- Challenging the Evidence
A) "I don't remember doing anything that would have made her angry."
B) "She might just be having a bad day."
C) "She might not have heard me when I said hello."
D) "I was looking forward to some of the things I have on my schedule today. It might not be a great day, but it doesn't have to be horrible."
- Coming to a Balanced Interpretation
"I have no idea why she didn't say hello back and I feel hurt, but instead of jumping to conclusions, I will check it out with her. If she is mad at me, I will deal with it. It doesn't have to ruin my whole day."