Murrell Counseling Service, LLC - Consulting, Evaluations & Therapy

Negative thinking and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

There is a simple formula that is very important in understanding why you have negative thinking and as a result very negative emotions (like anger, depression, anxiety, fear, panic, despair to name but a few).  The formula goes  like this: Negative thoughts trigger Negative emotions result in Negative behavior and result in a rise in physical tensions even to the point of pain. More simply stated the formula looks like this: 
                Thoughts---> Emotions--->Behavior--->Physiology.

The point of this graph is that your thoughts are very important in determining your emotions.  That is not to say that your hormones don't play a part (especially when you are younger) in determining your emotions, of course they do. When you are in love or when you have celebrated a great victory then you can feel your positive emotions flooding your entire being: mind and body. Certainly there are times to be justifiably angry!  If someone threatens you or a loved one it is appropriate to get angry to defend yourself.  So negative thoughts like "I am being threatened" and result emotions of anger and even anxiety are necessary to resolve the situation. So negative emotions are sometimes quite useful to get you out of life threatening circumstances. So what Cognitive Behavioral Therapists are not suggesting that life should be a non-stop parade of positive thoughts leading to positive emotions. What they do suggest is that it is worth taking time to examine your thinking to determine if you are unnecessarily reacting to situations that cause you emotional pain or discomfort. There are some patterns that Cognitive Behavioral Therapists (most notably Aaron Beck and David Burns) have described in their writings about dysfunctional thinking which is also called Automatic Thinking because it occurs so spontaneously. They are known by various names but here are some examples:
1. Personalizing: This refers to the habit of thinking that someone's behavior is reaction to something that you have done. For example, if you suffer road rage you may be thinking "He cut me off on purpose the jerk!"  It may be that the person driving erratically has a passenger who is having a heart attack or about to give birth.  Does either of those events have anything to do with you? No.
2.  Fortune Telling Error also known as Catastrophizing: This refers to the thinking habit of always expecting the worst possible outcome of events in your personal life (or the world at large) in the future.  An old Ozark saying that refers to this habit was "They are always making a mountain out of a molehill". Many news media stories promote Catastrophizing in order to get readership from their anxious readers or viewers.
3. Maximizing and Minimizing: This is the habit of thinking in terms of maximizing your mistakes and minimizing your successes.  This habit promotes low self-esteem and makes you feel inadequate which often results in depression and elevated anxiety.
4. Too many Shoulds:  This is the thinking habit of many perfectionists who are never happy with their own behavior because they are constantly criticizing themselves with "should statements".  No matter what they accomplish they are dissatisfied with their achievements   That is not to say that goals and striving to meet them is a bad thing; however, it is important to respect yourself enough to give yourself a break by celebrating your accomplishments and resting before striving after your next goal. 

There are many more patterns that you can discover on your own by reading books by Aaron Beck and David Burns.  The real adventure in life is learning about yourself and how you think.  Happy Trails.

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