Life is unpredictable. As we are now seeing around the world with the COVID-19 outbreak. If we are to be resilient to the unexpected crises and adversity, its important to brush up on some simple positive psychology techniques to keep ontop of our mental welbeing.
Cognitive therapy is based on the theory that much of how we feel is determined by what we think. Disorders, such as depression, are believed to be the result of faulty thoughts and beliefs. By correcting these inaccurate beliefs, the person’s perceptions of events and emotional state improve.
Research has shown that people suffering with depression and low mood often have inaccurate beliefs about themselves, their situation and the world. Common cognitive errors and real life examples are:
- Personalisation — relating negative events to oneself when there is no basis.
Example — When walking down the hallway at work, John says hello to the company MD. The MD does not respond and keeps walking. John interprets this as the MD’s lack of respect for him. He gets demoralized and feels rejected. However, the MD’s behavior may have nothing to do with John. He may have been preoccupied about an upcoming meeting, or had a fight with his wife that morning. If John considered that the MD’s behavior may not be related to him personally, he is likely to avoid this negative mood.
- Dichotomous Thinking — seeing things as black and white, all or none. This is usually detected when a person can generate only two choices in a situation.
Example — Mary is having a problem at work with one of her supervisors who she believes is treating her badly. She convinces herself that she has only two options: tell her boss off or quit. She is unable to consider a host of other possibilities such as talking to her boss in a constructive way, seeking guidance from a higher supervisor, contacting employee relations, etc.
- Selective Abstraction — focusing only on certain aspects of a situation, usually the most negative.
Example — During a staff meeting at work, Susan presents a proposal for solving a problem. Her solution is listened to with great interest and many of her ideas are applauded. However, at one point her supervisor points out that her budget for the project appears to be grossly inadequate. Susan ignores the positive feedback she has received and focuses on this one comment. She interprets it as a lack of support from her boss and a humiliation in front of the group.
- Magnification & Minimization — distorting the importance of particular events.
Example — Robert is a university student who wants to study medicine. He knows that his coursework grade will be used by schools during the admission process. He receives a D in History. He becomes demoralised thinking now that his lifelong dream to be a doctor is no longer possible.
Cognitive therapists work with the person to challenge thinking errors like these.
By pointing out alternative ways of viewing a situation, the person’s view of life, and ultimately their mood will improve. Research has shown that cognitive therapy can be as effective as medication in the long-term treatment of mental health disorders
In mental health first aid you can use any one or a combination of the methods to combat irrational, automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions. It’s good practice to try a few of them out and look for the one that seems to work best as different people will respond to different ways of fixing their irrational thoughts.
- Identify the Cognitive Distortion
The most important step of fixing any problem in your life is identifying exactly what the problem is and how extensive it is in your life. An mechanic starts with a diagnostic assessment of your car when it has a problem. In this same manner, you need to identify and track the cognitive distortions in your daily thinking first, before you start working to change them. You do this by creating a list of the troublesome thoughts throughout the day, as you’re having them. This will allow you to examine them later for matches with a list of cognitive distortions.
An examination of your cognitive distortions allows you to see which distortions that you prefer. Additionally, this process allows you to think about each problem or predicament in a more natural or realistic manner. David Burns called this exercise keeping a daily mood log, but nowadays you can use an app or anything that’s convenient to record your cognitive distortions.
- Examine the Evidence
Much like a judge overseeing a trial, the next step is to remove yourself from the emotionality of the upsetting event or episode of irrational thinking in order to examine the evidence more objectively. A thorough examination of an experience allows you to identify the basis for your distorted thoughts. If you are overly self-critical, you should identify a number of experiences and situations where you had success.
One effective method for examining the evidence is to look at individual thoughts connected to the event, and objectively decide whether those statements reflect an opinion or stone cold fact. For example, statements such as “I’m selfish” and “There’s something wrong with me” are opinions. “My co-worker spoke in angry voice toward me” and “I forgot to take the bins out” are facts.
Segregating facts from opinions can help you determine which are likely to be a component of a cognitive distortion (the opinions) and therefore need your focus and efforts to undo.
- Double Standard Method
An alternative to “self-talk” that is harsh and demeaning is to talk to ourselves in the same compassionate and caring way that we would talk with a friend in a similar situation. We are frequently much harder on ourselves than the people we care about in our lives, whether it be a friend or family member. We would never think of speaking to a close friend in the way we speak to ourselves in our own mind.
Instead of treating yourself with a different standard than what you hold everyone else to, why not use one single standard for everyone including yourself? Isn’t that more fair than using a double-standard? Give yourself the same encouragement that you would a trusted friend.
Imagine studying for an exam and telling a friend, “You’re going to screw this up, just like you screw everything else up!” Yet these are the same kinds of thoughts that run through many students’ minds before an exam. You can answer such automatic, negative thoughts back with a rational response. For example, “You’re going to do well on this exam, I just know it. You studied hard for it and did your best to memorize the material. I believe in you.”
- Thinking in Shades of Gray
Learning to undo black-and-white (or polarized) thinking can be challenging, because our minds take cognitive shortcuts to simplify processing of stimuli in order to hurry our ability to make a decision or choose a response. Black-and-white thinking can sometimes serve a good purpose, but it often leads a person down a path of irrational belief too.
Instead of thinking about a problem or predicament in an either-or polarity, thinking in shades of gray requires us to evaluate things on a scale of 0 through 100. When a plan or goal is not fully realized, think about and evaluate the experience as a partial success on this kind of scale.
For example, someone might think, “You can’t do anything right. You just blew your diet by having that second bite of ice cream.” What is the likelihood that a person’s entire dieting routine — that they’ve been following rigorously for months — is now made worthless by a single additional bite of ice cream? Very unlikely indeed.
Its prudent for businesses and organisations to have trained Mental Health First Aiders to support staff displaying signs of mental health difficulties. Positive Psychology training such as Mindfulness & CBT, Resilience & Assertiveness Skills can help mitigate risk of staff becoming so stressed it negatively affects the business.
Take a look the Skills Focus Training Free Trials of the Mental Health First Aid training and other positive psychology training courses available at https://skills-focus.org