In the first part of this series we began identifying what thinking errors are and how they affect us. In this article we will explore further three classic thinking errors, how we can be easily troubled them, blow things all out of proportion and drive our anxiety higher and higher. It is extremely common to find these three errors in the thinking of people who experience one or more of the range of anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, health anxiety and social anxiety. The three thinking errors to be covered in this article are:
- Emotional Reason
- Jumping To Conclusions
Emotional Reason can be seen as the foundation for its two big brothers, Jumping to Conclusions and Catastrophising and it is the distortion of assuming our emotions reflect reality or simply believing what our mind is telling us. An example might help.
Imagine walking into work one day and a colleague doesn’t seem to be their usual chirpy, cheerful self. Alarm bells start ringing! You begin to question what is wrong and you might put yourself at the heart of their moodiness. What is that you have done, or what they think you have done that is causing this? You begin to go over recent events, looking to either clear you name or identify what it is that you have done wrong. Follow up behaviours usually ensue if circumstances allow that are known to psychotherapists and psychologists as anxiety maintaining factors. In this situation we might seek out a third party and hope for some reassurance that we haven’t done anything wrong. We hope to find out what is going on and cross our fingers that it is nothing to do with us. We don’t know what could be worse: finding out we have slighted our friend or getting no useful information. And all the time the anxiety grows. Our mind races with associated thoughts delving deeper and deeper into anxious misery, hoping a praying for a swift conclusion. And as the thoughts get worse we leap to the next thinking error – Jumping to Conclusions.
Jumping to Conclusions is the natural next step following emotional reason. Now we believe that we are at the heart of a perceived problem we begin to envisage what will happen next. If we have upset our former friend and colleague they will probably take some sort of action. This might be in the form of a complaint against us or the start of a grievance procedure. It could be that they are biding their time and plan to confront us when no one is looking, or worse, when everyone is looking, or they could just gossip about what we did and turn the office or team against us until no one is talking to us anymore. We might now start to preempt these possible scenarios and begin to strategize for all possibilities. We will have our answers ready, our retorts get sharpened and we know what we will say in retaliation. The thoughts go faster and faster and faster. And then – Catastrophising.
Catastrophising, sometimes referred to as awfulising, is the natural successor to Jumping to Conclusions. Now we are assuming that it is a given that we are going to face complaints and a hostile workforce sending us to Coventry it becomes inevitable that we are going to face disciplinary action. This disciplinary action will lead to instant dismissal, no references, no chance of us working in this industry again and a decline in all of our personal and professional relationships. With no income to speak of, no prospects and no friends we will have no choice but to pack up and live under a bridge. The life we had and the world as we know it just came to an end. And all because you thought your friend wasn’t as pleasantly disposed as she normally is.
These thoughts and the whirlwind of catastrophic thinking becomes the worry that ruins our day until, of course, said colleague later sticks her head around the door and with her customary brilliant smile offers you a cup of tea and your favourite biscuit. So what about her moodiness? Turns out she hadn’t heard you come in and was wrapped in thoughts about trying to buy Glastonbury tickets. A day ruined by one misplaced and illogical response. And many of us do it.
Here are a few more examples of the three thinking errors.
- Upon hearing that your neighbours are selling their house you assume it is because you’ve been too noisy and unpleasant to tolerate any more.
- Two missed calls from your children means something must be wrong.
- The holiday bargain you were so happy with yesterday now must be too good to be true.
Jumping to Conclusions
- Your new neighbours will be awful, playing music until all hours and throwing weeds and grass clippings over the fence.
- Because you can’t get hold of the kids they must be in a police station, hospital or both.
- The dream holiday villa will be flea ridden and the beds lumpy.
- A drugs den will be set up next door reducing the value of your property to pre 1970’s levels but becomes impossible to sell at any price.
- The kids will spend the rest of their lives in jail and the whole community will blame you.
- You’ll be kidnapped by mafia holiday reps and charged with false allegations of unspeakable crimes because you felt you had to complain.
How to bust ‘em up
The examples sound funny, hopefully, but let’s face it; they ring true in some ways for a lot of people. Learning how to challenge them and then bust ‘em up is a skill that can reduce worry considerably. Below we’ll review a few top tips.
Top Tip 1 – Scribe
Make a few bullet points of examples of your own series of the three thinking errors. With hindsight, what was the real story? Where did the truth collide with the scary thoughts? And if you’d known this all the way how much could you have cut short your concern? Doing this will engage your logical brain, moving your thinking away from the emotional limbic system and anchor a positive outcome from a previous worry. Could the reality actually step in right at the beginning and put a halt to the worry before it builds beyond Emotional Reason?
Top Tip 2 – Think Back
Remember top tip 1 the next time you begin to traverse the slippery slope that begins with Emotional Reason. When the thinking errors raise their ugly little heads you can recall that you have done this kind of thing before (probably countless times) and still have a roof over your head, food in the belly and semblance of a life. If all of your catastrophisations had come true you wouldn’t have made it to day one of school. Yet here you are.
Top Tip 3 – Lawyer Up
Challenge the thoughts you are having in a mental court of law. You get to be the smart, sharp suited lawyer before the mental jury asking what evidence there is that this thought is real. Reasonable doubt is the goal.
Top Tip 4 – Identify Success
If there is any semblance of truth in the troublesome thought such as your colleague genuinely does have the hump with you and is going to confront you over something, know what success looks like. When Jumping to Conclusions we often see ourselves floundering, becoming stressed and anxious and losing control. Often just being determined to remain dignified makes the prospect of a small skirmish less daunting, as this is something that we can see is within our control. Staying dignified in a confrontation is a great way of deescalating incidents with people wanting to stay on side and also lays down a fresh memory of a difficult moment dealt with well. Memories of this type reduce further thinking errors as well.
Top Tip 5 – Reflection
Top tip 5 actually comes after the event. When the truth is out and we know what was really going on how accurate were your fearful thoughts? Was there any truth in them? If there was, how bad was it really? And did the thinking errors help or hinder? This will help you in the future to challenge further thinking errors yet to happen or even reduce the likelihood of them happening at all.
Emotional Reason would be a real pain if that’s all that happened but it starts a downward spiral of Jumping to Conclusions and Catastrophising that can really make us feel anxious. Recognising these thoughts early is an advanced thinking skill that can change the way we feel about potentially mind numbing incidents. Practicing with some effort and discipline the top 5 strategies we have highlighted here can be extremely effective at ‘busting up those horrible worries’.
Some of the top tips will be revisited as we address other thinking errors in the rest of this series of articles as well as other specific strategies for particular cognitive distortions.
Please feel free to comment and add your own helpful advice below, after all – we’re in this together.