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Take a Reality Check:  How Negative Thinking Distorts Our Moods

Do you feel down? The sudden change in the way you feel may be the result of what you are thinking. Every time you feel depressed about something, try to identify a corresponding negative thought you just had. By learning to change negative thoughts, you can change your mood. This re-learning process is called cognitive therapy.

The following list includes some of the cognitive distortions, or negative thoughts, that may bring on the blues.

All Or Nothing Thinking. This refers to you tendency to think about yourself in extreme categories. All or nothing thinking forms the basis for perfectionism. It causes you to fear any mistake or imperfection because you will then see yourself as a total loser. Absolutes do not exist in our universe, and if you try to bend your life experiences into absolute categories you will be constantly depressed because your expectations and perceptions will not conform to reality. Of course you're not perfect, but you're still an O.K. person. So, give yourself a break.

Overgeneralization. Do you say to yourself, "It's happened to me once, so it will always happen to me?" If you asked someone out on a date and they turned you down, did your inner thoughts tell you "Ill never get a date. Why even bother to try again?" This kind of defeating thinking would make anyone feel hopeless.

Mental Filter. You pick out the negative aspect of any given situation and dwell on it to the exclusion of anything else. It's like shooting 24 pictures on a roll of film and finding out that all but four are overexposed. The four left, however, are great photos! Which pictures do you focus on? In this situation you have something to be very happy about. The question is, do you find something to be unhappy about instead? Do you find the positives or do you find only the negatives?

Should Statements. The parental voice inside each of us constantly says, "I should do this", "I must do that". These statements cause you to feel pressured and resentful, and paradoxically make you feel apathetic and unmotivated. When the reality of your own behavior falls short of your standards, your "should" and "should nots" create self-doubt, shame, and guilt. Work on giving up this little verbal whip you carry around inside your head.

One of the cardinal features of cognitive, or reality therapy, is that it forces you to ask yourself, "am I really a loser, or are my illogical negative thoughts causing me to feel as if I am a loser?"

The first step to re-thinking your way to healthy self-esteem and a positive life view, is to take a close look at exactly what you say about yourself, to yourself. The process of changing your negative thinking can be learned. You can expect success proportionate to the time you are willing to put into basic cognitive therapy techniques. The more you practice, the better you become at changing negative thoughts. Before long you will think more positively out of habit.

A complete guide to these techniques is Feeling Good. The New Mood Therapy, by David D Burns, M.D. In a nutshell, three of the crucial steps to take when you are feeling depressed are:

  1. Zero in on those automatic negative thoughts and write them down. Don't let them buzz around in your head; snare them on paper!
  2. Read over the list of ten cognitive distortions Dr. Burns outlines, some of which we have described above. Learn precisely how you are twisting things and blowing them out of proportion.
  3. Substitute a more objective thought for the lie you told yourself about yourself, the one(s) which make you look down on yourself. You'll begin to feel better as you do this; you'll be boosting your self-esteem. Your sense of worthlessness, along with your depression, will disappear.

The best thing about working with cognitive therapy is learning that you alone are in control of your well-being. You'll only remain a victim of negative thinking and low self-image if you allow yourself to. The process of learning to "lighten up" on your self takes concentrated effort every day, until you have formed a healthy new habit. Every time you tell yourself something good about yourself, you're one step closer to living in a happier reality.

Source: Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy. by David D. Burns, M.D.

Written by Helene King, Ph.D., CEAP

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