This post is going to be the first in a series of posts that I will be doing about Cognitive Distortions. Cognitive distortions are basically little mind games we engage in, or tricks that we play on ourselves that distort how we think about the situations we are in or how we interpret events that happen to us. They can be self-limiting and cause us distress because we are using our emotions to create a narrative that may not be truly accurate. We all fall victim to these cognitive distortions from time to time, but as individuals we may engage in one or more cognitive distortions regularly, so it can be helpful to recognize when we have an ingrained pattern of thinking that is distorted and needs to be changed in order to increase our mental wellness and have a healthy mentality. Today I’m going to talk about a very common cognitive distortion that I have found many of my clients identify with when we talk about these mental tricks we play on ourselves: Catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing basically happens when we take a situation and either make it have more significance than it really deserves (turn it into a catastrophe when it doesn’t have to be) or we predict that a catastrophe is going to occur before we really know the outcome of a situation. Basically this means that you are always expecting the worst case scenarios, and you may take ordinary problems and interpret them in ways that become overwhelming and seem insurmountable.
We often cannot see the positive in a given situation when we are in the midst of a crisis. Yet given time, many situations that we stress and worry about will resolve themselves with time, or you can solve the problem with a little effort. To give you an example, I will discuss a common situation that I ran into with clients: those who were being separated from the military. Being separated from the military can be extremely stressful because it entails a huge shift in your lifestyle. You go from having the military basically be in charge of all major decisions in your life (where you live, for how long, what job you have, where you get benefits for your family from) to being out on your own and in need of a job that provides some of the stability and security that the military provided while you were active duty. In the best of circumstances you have a chance to plan ahead and move forward with those plans when your separation date approaches. However, not everyone gets a lot of advance notice. Sometimes people get separated because of an injury or disability, sometimes people don’t get higher tenure and have to separate, some people don’t make the fitness requirements and have to separate, or they get into trouble because of behavioral problems and face involuntary separation. Regardless of the reason they have to separate they are losing their job. Anyone can understand how stressful and difficult it must feel to know that you are about to lose your job, income, and benefits.
However, just as with everything else in life, we can choose how to interpret and cope with this information. You can argue that being involuntarily separated from the military is, indeed, a catastrophe. That is how many of my clients interpreted their situation when they realized that separation was a possibility. However, once we dug a little deeper into their options, the situation was not always so catastrophic. In fact, we often discovered that separating from the military could end up being a positive change that propelled their lives forward in ways that helped them pursue their higher goals. They realized that they would finally have time to go back to school to pursue other career goals, or they realized that they would no longer have to deal with stress of deployments, the separation from their family, or the grueling schedules they had been keeping. Once we were able to process through their options and find the best path for them to move forward, separation didn’t have to be such a catastrophe. Certainly the adjustment would still be stressful, but it didn’t mean that their lives or their careers were over with. Re-framing the situation to look for opportunities instead of looking only at the catastrophic event of involuntary separation helped them to put their energy into making plans for their future instead of ruminating on the looming changes in a negative way and thinking about all the things they would not have access to anymore. The situation hadn’t changed at all, but the way we were looking at it had.
This is a powerful shift that anyone can do. If you find that you often interpret events that happen as a total catastrophe that you have no control over and can only result in terrible things, or presume that the worst possible outcome will indeed occur, think about how much distress this way of thinking is causing you. Look for your choices. We always have choices, even when we feel that we don’t. The reason this is true is because even in the worst situations, where there appear to be no choices, we always have a choice about our mentality. Sometimes our mind is the only thing we CAN control, and so that’s why it’s so important to make sure your mentality is healthy. Few people get through life without some major hurdles, so we all will come face to face with difficult circumstances or unexpected setbacks. However, choosing to look at a situation and decide that it is a catastrophe will only increase your suffering, and doesn’t help you resolve the issue. Recognizing this pattern and learning to look for your choices will help you to stop turning ordinary problems into overwhelming disasters. Cognitive distortions don’t do us any favors. They may be common, but they don’t have to rule over our emotions if we don’t let them. Ask yourself what difference this situation might make to you in a year, or 5 years. Chances are, many situations are going to be resolved and you will have moved past them by that time, or you may have to make some adjustments in your life. Of course there may be times when an actual catastrophe happens, but that just means you need to reserve your energy and focus to deal with the major problems that you WILL have to deal with, and stop letting ordinary situations (like your boss criticizing your work performance) have undue influence over your mood and happiness.