Monday, January 18, 2021

Are You Cognitively Distorted?

Multicolored distorted television image
Distorted television image

Although this sounds like a new kind of psychological disability, it’s not. Cognitive distortions are inaccurate perceptions of reality. These distortions come from types of thinking that can damage our personal wellness and, when a group of people fall into the same style, can result in dangerous uncivil behavior.

What are some types of thinking that employ cognitive distortion? Some common ones are mind reading, permanence, emotional reasoning, catastrophizing, and polarization.

Mind reading happens when we are given only part of a communication and our thoughts then predict the remainder. Since most of us have a natural negativity bias, we often think up the worst-case scenario.

This is a mental shortcut, but it can lead us in entirely the wrong direction. A better strategy is to ask the person sending the abbreviated message for additional clarity.

“You texted me that we had to talk as soon as I got home from work. Did I forget our anniversary?” “No, nothing like that. I’m pregnant!”

“I saw you leave during my presentation. Is my thinking on this topic flawed?” “Not at all. I agree with you. I just really had to get to the restroom.”

Permanence is the mistaken belief that a situation will last forever. This is usually expressed in terms of absolute words. “I am always clumsy.” “I will never be able to hold a job.” “We are always going to have to wear a mask when we leave the house.”

If you find yourself thinking like this, challenge the thought by restating it without absolutes. “Gosh, that was clumsy of me. Next time I will watch where I step.” “I got laid off from that job, but I found it after looking for only a week. I can beef up my resume with volunteer work until I find another job.” Challenge thoughts of permanence with counterevidence.

Emotional reasoning falsely translates a feeling into a personal description. “I feel bad now, so I must be a bad person.” “I feel angry at my spouse, so I must be a poor partner.”

The best way to combat this cognitive distortion is to recognize that no matter how strong the emotion, it will pass; feelings always change, eventually. Emotions do not define us. Remind yourself of this when a strong emotion hits. “I feel terrible now because that project didn’t work out. It’s OK to feel bad about it, because that means it was important and I really tried hard. I can try something different next time.”

Catastrophizing occurs when your thoughts maximize or minimize outcomes. You jump to conclusions based on overemphasizing unimportant facts or minimizing important ones. “Oh no! I noticed a lump under my skin. I’m going to die of cancer.” “Sure, he says mean and untrue things about me to his family. I must be an inadequate wife.”  

Catastrophizing is exaggerating. To counter this type of thinking, focus on specific, perhaps small, details that are not as extreme.

Polarization is all-or-nothing thinkingeither this or not-this, with no middle ground. The two opposite categories tend to be at the extremes of a continuum with no consideration of intermediate positions. You will often see this on social media. “If you don’t believe as I do, you are evil.” “You have to accept my solution or you will cause the situation to fail.”

When counteracting this style of thinking, whether by yourself or by someone else, it is important to acknowledge that the extreme positions do both exist. Then offer an intermediate suggestion as a “however.”

To read more about these and other forms of cognitive distortion, please see the following:

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Asking for support is a sign of strength, not weakness

A tree being held up by a concrete support in the shape of a hand
Tree getting a helping hand

We all experience times of vulnerability in our lives. It is not a comfortable feeling. One fairly common way to deal with this discomfort it to attempt to ignore, deny or bury it. 

But a healthier way of approaching vulnerability is to ask for support. There may be a social stigma attached, as if needing support is a weakness, as if you should be able to deal with vulnerability on your own. But don’t let potential stigma stop you. Seeking support is a sign of strength, not weakness.

We know that “social isolation resulting from inadequate social support leads to loneliness, depression, and vulnerability, and subsequently to other adverse health problems,” as documented recently in multiple populations including aging Vietnamese and Italians with eating disorders. Research shows that social relationships have a moderating role and are a “potential influence on stress resilience, … vulnerability to infection and adverse health outcomes.”

When you offer support to someone who needs it, you end up feeling better yourself. Allow someone you trust to get that happy sensation by asking them to help and support you,

For the research behind the validity of vulnerability as a positive, please watch the TEDTalk by BrenĂ© Brown. Her research shows that those who embrace their vulnerability as a necessary part of their humanity, their connection to others, do so with courage, compassion, and authentic interpersonal connections. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Tip - Fighting Weight Gain During This Pandemic

Very wide knife and fork covered in a measuring tape
Even our utensils have gotten fat during the pandemic

Many people have noticed they have gained weight during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns, leading to the creation of the terms “Quarantine 15” and “COVID-19.” Doctors attribute this weight gain to stress-induced eating. People are more likely to eat high-calorie foods when they are stressed, even if they are not hungry. They also engage in other unhealthy habits such as avoiding exercise and sleeping less.

If you are one of the people who has added extra pounds in the past year, here are some ideas for getting back to your pre-COVID weight.

Since stress seems to be one of the main causative factors for this pandemic of weight gain, one way you can address the problem is to find appropriate ways to manage stress. Try the following:

  • Be sure you can recognize the physical and emotional signs of stress in your body. These include muscle tension, irritability, and feelings of anxiety.

  • Before you eat, check in with yourself. Are you feeling stressed and eating when you are not really hungry as a flawed coping strategy?

  • If you want to eat, but aren’t really hungry, try distracting yourself. Call a friend for a chat. Watch a TV show (without snacking).

  • Keep an eating and behavior habit diary. Look for patterns in your eating that may relate to stressful feelings instead of hunger.

You’ve probably seen the rest of these suggestions often enough. They apply in most situations and are just simple (but not necessarily easy) steps to general good health.

  • Eat a healthy varied diet emphasizing vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

  • Don’t skip meals to cut calories. Eat smaller amounts at each meal.

  • If your comfort foods are junk foods, get rid of them and do not keep any in your home.

  • Get regular exercise. Include the four types of exercise: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.

  • Learn and use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, stretching, yoga or meditation.

  • Get adequate good-quality sleep.

  • Learn to accept setbacks to the progress of your improvement plan. Get back on track as soon as possible.

  • Let your family and friends know your weight loss goal. Ask them to encourage and support you.

  • Seek professional advice and assistance if you are not able to lose weight on your own.

For more information on stress: