A colleague once shared with me the observation that much of the health-related suffering humans experience originates between the ears.
A complete understanding of the various factors influencing mental health (and often by association, physical health) has been elusive and remains in its infancy. Yet, sufficient progress has been made in the last century, at least, to recognize variables common to all of us that lie at the root of much mental health suffering, influencing such common problems as anxiety and depression.
The combination of self-awareness and the knowledge of distorted thinking patterns programmed in the human brain, with practice, can reduce this suffering and possibly lead to better mental, physical and spiritual health.
The concept of cognitive distortions, also known as thinking traps, has been largely credited to the work of psychologist Dr. Aaron Beck in the 1960s and later developed further by other mental health researchers. Beck defined the cognitive triad as the inter-relationship between negative thoughts about the world, oneself and the future. His work is the basis for cognitive therapy, a form of counseling designed to replace patterns of negative thinking with more constructive thinking patterns rooted in reality.
We are all subject to patterns of negative thinking to varying degrees. So-called automatic negative thoughts seem to be hard-wired into the human brain. These can affect both our emotions and our behavior with consequences to our general well-being.
There are many examples of thinking traps.
Overgeneralization is a cognitive distortion in which a single negative event is viewed as a persistent pattern of defeat by using terms like “always” or “never.” Another cognitive distortion is known as jumping to conclusions, in which you judge things negatively without evidence to support your judgment. Examples of this include mind-reading, in which you assume others are thinking negatively about you, and fortune-telling, in which you assume that future events will turn out badly.
Other thinking traps include discounting the positive through rejection of good experiences as well as the use of a mental filter, in which you select a negative detail from a situation or personal interaction and focus on it rather than considering the broader context.
Labeling is a cognitive trap in which you use a single mistake or failure to justify your judgment of yourself or another as a loser or a fool. Personalization is a type of distorted thinking in which you hold yourself responsible for adverse events or situations not entirely within your control.
We all experience some automatic negative thoughts. Some are even more susceptible to negative patterns of thinking that can affect their mental, spiritual and physical health. Yet, it is possible to change our way of thinking. Doing so involves first understanding and recognition of these thinking traps followed by developing strategies to challenge them. With practice, their control over our emotions and behaviors can be reduced, leading not only to better health but also a richer and more joyful life.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.