Mental Health Month – Tuesday

Thinking Traps

It’s easy to fall into negative thinking patterns and spend time bullying yourself, dwelling on the past, or worrying about the future. It’s part of how we’re wired – the human brain reacts more intensely to negative events than to positive ones and is more likely to remember insults than praise. During tough times, negative thoughts are especially likely to spiral out of control. When these thoughts make something out to be worse in your head than it is in reality, they are called cognitive distortions.

Common Cognitive Distortions

Overgeneralization: Making a broad statement based on one situation or piece of evidence.

Personalization: Blaming yourself for events beyond your control; taking things personally when they aren’t actually connected to you.

Filtering: Focusing on the negative details of a situation while ignoring the positive.

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Only seeing the extremes of a situation.

Catastrophizing: Blowing things out of proportion; dwelling on the worst possible outcomes.

Jumping to Conclusions: Judging or deciding something without all the facts.

Emotional Reasoning: Thinking that however you feel is fully and unarguably true.

Discounting the Positive: Explaining all positives away as luck or coincidence.

“Should” Statements: Making yourself feel guilty by pointing out what you should or shouldn’t be doing, feeling, or thinking.

Tips for Challenging Negative Thoughts

Remember: thoughts aren’t facts. Your thoughts and feelings are valid, but they aren’t always reality. You might feel ugly, but that doesn’t mean you are. Often times we can be our own worst enemies – other people are seeing us in a much nicer light than how we see ourselves.

Reframe. Think of a different way to view the situation. If your negative thought is “I can’t do anything right,” a kinder way to reframe it is, “I messed up, but nobody’s perfect,” or a more constructive thought is “I messed up, but now I know to prepare more for next time.” It can be hard to do this when you’re feeling down on yourself, so ask yourself what you’d tell your best friend if they were saying those things about themselves.

Prove yourself wrong. The things you do impact how you feel – what actions can you take to combat your negative thoughts? For instance, if you’re telling yourself you aren’t smart because you don’t understand how the stock market works, learn more about a subject you understand and enjoy, like history. If you feel like no one cares about you, call a friend. Give yourself evidence that these thoughts aren’t entirely true.

Counter negative thoughts with positive ones. When you catch your inner dialogue being mean to you, make yourself say something nice to balance it out. This may feel cheesy at first and self-love can be hard, so don’t give up if it feels awkward in the beginning. Name things you love, like, or even just don’t hate about yourself – we all have to start somewhere!

HUGE THANK YOU TO MENTAL HEALTH AMERICA FOR THEIR AMAZING TOOLKIT TO HELP US SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH! YOU CAN ACCESS THEIR SITE HERE

 

Coping in Unusual Times

Coping in Unusual Times

Coping mechanisms are the tools we draw upon to help us combat stress. It is no surprise that stress can do strange things to our bodies and minds. It can induce lethargy, intense anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, and change the way our brain makes decisions, all of which can make coping exceedingly difficult. Most people have some identified coping mechanisms that assist with striking a balance between the stressful event or circumstance, and a healthier state of functioning. Unfortunately, when stress happens during non-normative times there can be additional factors at play including a decrease or complete lack of our usual coping options or an inability to gather support from the people we normally would. Regardless of the change in factors, there are some tools that are helpful for coping, even when times are unusual.

Understanding your triggers. We have talked about triggers before, and likely will again – because they are important! These are those situations or people that poke some internal part of our emotions or memory and stir us to feeling out of control, or unsafe. The result of feeling out of control or unsafe usually begins a spiral of thoughts and behaviors that are unhelpful to us regaining the peace we are seeking. When we work to identify our triggers then the situations that would cause them to become less surprising, and thus our reaction to them changes. Triggers during times of unusual stress may include feeling helpless, hopeless, optionless, isolated, or stuck in a certain circumstance. Understanding a trigger can take some work and may not be something achievable without professional help.

Resource List. This is a tool that frequents my clinical practice. A good resource list helps an individual outline what their resources are during a time of peace or neutrality, with the intent to be drawn upon during times of stress. Recall that stress forces the brain to make decisions about what functioning it will focus on – and typically logical thought gets excluded at some point in the process. So, creating a resource list during times of low to no stress is best. A good resource list should contain items such as

a. Indicators you may be feeling excessively overwhelmed (you may be surprised at how difficult it is to recognize this when you are in this state!). Note the behaviors, feelings, and physical characteristics that you exhibit when your stress is high, and you are not at your best.

b. Coping mechanisms that can be utilized without outside assistance. These are things such as exercise, journaling, listening to music, taking a bath/ shower, or meditation. The items here should be actual activities that you know are helpful, this is not the time to try out new things! The key here is productive coping, so any action that is unhealthy or self-injurious should not make the cut.

c. People you can turn to in the event the above items do not work. The individuals on this list should be reliable and know enough about you to know what is helpful for assisting you in times of need.

d. Signs your stress levels are decreasing. This is important because being able to identify what is happening when you are starting to function more effectively gives you feedback that what you are doing is helpful. So, outline what you are doing and how are you feeling when you find yourself more balanced.

e. A list of local emergency numbers. Although no one enjoys thinking about what happens when our stress is so high we cannot handle it anymore, the fact is that everyone has that threshold. Having a list of your local emergency room number and location can be helpful in the event your situation escalates to an unsafe level and you need to reach out for medical help to stay safe.

Professional help. While there are plenty of ways that we can assist ourselves, sometimes the best option is to seek professional help. During unusual times of stress our resources may look different, our triggers may be stronger, and our coping strategies may not be working as effectively as they do during more normal times. When that is the case, there is nothing wrong with using outside assistance. Mental health professionals are trained to help people through difficult seasons and circumstances. Counseling may be the best option if you find yourself unable to regulate your emotions, your stress level remains consistently elevated, or none of the typical ways you cope are helping.

It may be helpful to know that everyone has a certain threshold for dealing with stress. How we cope may look different, the tools we draw on likely vary, but the reality is all of us are coping with stress on a continual basis. How effectively we do so depends greatly on how much we are required to deal with at one time, and how well equipped we are to tackle the task. My hope is that utilizing the coping resources listed here will give you the advantage the next time you are faced with high stress. Stay well friends!

Expectations

An expectation, as defined by dictionary.com, is “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.” I would wager that you have expected at some point in your life. Expected a good test score. Expected a certain response from a friend. Expected your spouse to act a specific way. You have also likely felt disappointment when those expectations were not fulfilled.

Expectations are a tricky thing. They can certainly serve us in our journey of life, helping us along as we set goals and aspirations for ourselves. However, expectations are not always positive, and that tends to be where this subject gets fickle. When we have had multiple negative experiences in our life, especially surrounding the same subject or circumstance (or even person), our expectations begin to be negative ones. Perhaps we have a child who continually makes decisions that do not allow them to work to their full potential. We start out hoping for the best but day after day, week after week, on and on we are let down. Eventually the poor choices or adverse behaviors no longer surprise us. We realize we now expect this type of outcome; our hope for “the best” has been lost, and we are stuck in a negative frame of mind concerning this situation.

When this has happened in just one aspect of life, but especially when this pattern is repeated across several areas of life, we begin to have a negative perspective. It becomes very difficult to see any positive, regardless of how much may be there. Figuratively we have a negative filter over our eyes. So, what is the prognosis? Are we doomed to just stay in this place of negativity and gloom, or is there a possibility of changing the filter?

Good news, there is hope in this situation! To lend some understanding, our brain is the storage place for the information (good and bad!) we collect during our lifetime. When we have been repeatedly let down, it is stored in our memory center. When we have been hurt by a family member, the brain keeps score. When we have had negative  or positive encounters with our partner, the brain builds “neural pathways” that inform of us what to expect in certain situations. The dread we feel before entering the room with a tough family member is expectation that things will be as terrible as they were previously. Fortunately, what neuroscience has revealed over the past few decades is that the brain is “plastic”, or capable of changing what scientists used to think was unchangeable hard-wired information. We now know that by using therapeutic techniques an individual can rewrite the neural pathways and change the way they approach and think about previously negative situations.

This process begins with being mindful about how we are feeling in our bodies as well as the message we are receiving from our brain. When we can identify that automatic response as it is being fed to us, we can halt the information being received about how to react, giving us the opportunity to create a new response. Particularly helpful in this process is focusing on something positive, or different about the situation. See, when we are stuck in a cycle of thinking or expecting negative things, our brain is tuned in to the negative around us, literally overlooking the positive! Believe it or not, it is there. We just cannot see it because of the way our brain has been trained to see the bad. So, intentionally seeing small pieces of positive help interrupt the brain’s cycle of negative filtering and allow us to begin having positive expectations.

This may seem fairly simple, and in all transparency the description here is certainly scaled down. There are hours of work that go into rewriting the brain’s responses. However, it is possible, and worth it! If you are interested in more information about this topic, please reach out! Solid Ground Counseling Center can be reached at 256-503-8586.

You can catch our video on the topic on YouTube or Facebook!