In life, there are lots of ups and downs. Everyone experiences negative thoughts from time to time. But sometimes, we can get caught up in a whirlwind of existential, anxious, and negative thoughts that only pull us lower. As humans, we tend to assume these thoughts are there for a reason and that they are automatically true. Negative thoughts like these can pile up and create negative patterns in our way of thinking. These negative patterns can make it hard to cope, especially when you're up against these so-called 'truths,' which can create (or worsen) stress, anxiety, and depression.
Negativity forces your subconscious to react as if it is being attacked. It can activate the fight, flight, or freeze response. Too much negativity, especially directed at the self, can cause anxiety or depression or worsen existing mental health issues.
But the good news is there is a way to break these cycles. Cognitive Reframing is a technique used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to identify these negative, unhelpful thought patterns and replace them with more balanced ways of thinking. Reframing your thoughts can be crucial to stopping the whirlwind of negativity in its tracks before it pulls you in.
Reframing is not the only tool in the CBT toolbox. However, if you are struggling to cope with stress, anxiety, or general negativity, learning to reframe your thoughts is an excellent way to start easing the burden.
The First Step
The first step to reframing your thoughts is to recognize that just because we think a thought does not mean it is true. Instead, there are different ways that we can view the thoughts we have, much like looking at them through a different lens. We don't always have control over the thoughts that pop into our heads, but we have control over how we view and respond to them. Once you recognize that you don't have to take every thought at face value, you can start distinguishing normal thoughts from negative thought patterns. CBT practitioners call these cognitive distortions.
Very Well Mind explains, "Cognitive distortions are negative or irrational patterns of thinking. These negative thought patterns can play a role in diminishing your motivation, lowering your self-esteem, and contributing to problems like anxiety, depression, and substance use.”
Cognitive Distortions are challenging to recognize because they are subtle and often a part of our everyday lives. They are our biased perceptions of ourselves and the world that contribute to a system or pattern of irrational thoughts. We often don't recognize they are damaging our happiness and mental health.
These cognitive distortions can come in many different forms and appear to each individual differently. However, they do have a few things in common, which might make them easier to recognize. Generally, cognitive distortions can be described as patterns of thinking or believing that are false or inaccurate and have the potential to cause psychological damage.
Types of Cognitive Distortions
This distortion is a way of skewing your perspective through gross errors in evaluation. This means you overplay or underplay the importance, meaning, or likelihood of things. A small mistake becomes the worst thing you could ever do, or a big achievement is because of luck or the help of others, not you. Magnify or minimize the importance or meaning of your role in the outcome based on whether it's positive or negative. This could also mean magnifying or only focusing on the worst-case scenarios or negative outcomes.
All or Nothing
Also called Black-And-White Thinking, this distortion causes people to think only in extremes of black and white categories. There is only complete success or total failure; exactly right or dead wrong; fantastic or awful; perfect or terrible. You always deal with unrealistic dichotomous criteria; there are no shades of grey or a balanced perspective. All or nothing thinking also means that there is no room for improvement, no trying again because things are how they are.
Jumping to Conclusions
This distortion is about making assumptions based on minimal or no evidence to support your conclusion. Typically, this distortion refers to jumping to negative conclusions about the self or the world. It is divided into two subcategories.
Mind reading is the assumption that people are thinking negatively about you. You could be mind reading someone you know or a stranger. Still, you are assuming their thoughts and anticipating their reactions with no factual basis or evidence to support your assumptions. We can have an idea of what other people are thinking at times. Still, this distortion often presents itself with negative interpretations and harmful conclusions.
Fortune telling is making conclusions or predictions, again, with no evidence to support your assumption. With this type of distortion, conclusions are mainly negative and usually wrong. But sometimes, assuming the worst outcome causes the worst outcome. For example, you believe you're going to do badly in an interview, so you don't try to do well. This distortion also presents a problem when you assume there is only one outcome when there are many possible outcomes. Like magnifying, this distortion forces you to only focus on the worst-case scenario, but it goes further. Hence, you only expect the worst-case scenario.
Personalization is when external related to oneself, with no evidence, reason, or basis for the connection. It is thinking that when things happen, they are connected or caused by you somehow, even if they are not related to you. It involves blaming yourself for something you had nothing to do with and things out of your control. It is believing you are the cause for negative things around you when there is no logical reason to think so. It could even be believing you have been specifically targeted or excluded from things when that's not happening.
Discounting/disqualifying the positive
This distortion is a way of thinking that transforms neutral or positive experiences into negative ones. This could involve filtering out or ignoring positive information and events, such as disqualifying positive compliments. Saying to yourself, 'they are just being polite,' or refusing to take credit for things that go right. Everything positive is just dumb luck or a mistake. Once the positive experiences are voided and forgotten, the only thing left is the negative. Discounting allows negative thoughts to flourish even in the face of solid evidence and positive experiences.
Reframing Negative Thoughts
Everyone has fallen for a few cognitive distortions at some point in life. How we respond to our thoughts determines how much they affect our lives. The ability to identify them within yourself (and to reframe them) is a skill like any other; it takes time and practice.
recognizing that thoughts do not represent truth;
identifying cognitive distortions or a thought that has led you to a negative conclusion;
and asking yourself, how can I look at this in another way? This is called activating the wise mind.
Finding ways to reframe your thoughts can take some trial and error. There are many different reframing strategies, but because the thought is so personal to you, the solution must be too.
Though, a great place to start is to practice noticing negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions. Point it out to yourself, write it down, or speak it aloud. Writing, in particular, can help document specific patterns of thought that reoccur. Plus, avoiding the thought of doing something else may be helpful while you get more comfortable with reframing.
Also, try evaluating the fact and evidence of the thought, situation, or conclusion. Often, cognitive distortions lead us to false and inaccurate conclusions and lead us to believe things that aren't true. Try and separate the thoughts and emotions from the factual truth. So, think about the actual proof you have. Essentially fact-check your thoughts.
Sometimes our thoughts and anxieties are grounded in some truth. Therefore, thinking about the evidence may not always be helpful. It may be more beneficial to look at the situation through a more practical lens. Ask yourself, "Is this helpful,” or “is this constructive.” Is having this thought going to help my situation, or is it doing more harm? Try and think more realistically rather than positively, as well. Positivity isn't always going to help the situation either. It's better to be more grounded and balanced with your Reframing than to go in the opposite direction.
Remember to practice compassion throughout this process as well. Give yourself the time and patience to learn these new skills. When you’re reframing, treat yourself as you would a friend going through the same thing. We tend to be more compassionate and reasonable with others than we do with ourselves. Try and imagine what you'd say to a family member if they were thinking what you were thinking.
And finally, learning to reframe your negative thoughts takes time, and getting comfortable using this strategy takes time. Give yourself at least a week to try out this technique. It may feel weird, awkward, and uncomfortable at first, but it does take a while to start to work. However, it may not work for you, and that's okay. There are other strategies within the CBT toolbox and other techniques and therapies that you can try.
Negative thoughts and cognitive distortions can significantly impact your life and health. However, they don't have to control your life. Identifying your thought patterns and reframing them can help you to manage your negative cycles and feel less stressed and anxious. If you're struggling with negative thoughts, it's important to seek help from a registered psychotherapist so you don't get stuck in a cycle of negative thinking.