Gently challenging your thinking traps

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There I was, sitting in that meeting with steam billowing out of my ears, seething and muttering under my breath. When one of my colleagues asked me what was going on, I launched into a tirade about the email I had just received.

At the time, I was working as a mental health administrator in a large hospital system, and the chief of staff had sent me a terse message asking me to address a performance measure that was lingering on the low side. My team and I had been devoting all of our attention to performance measures, and making great gains, not just on the measures themselves, but on the clinical services they monitored. We were proud of ourselves, but exhausted, worn out, and ready to move on.

The chief’s email was one line, with no salutation or sign-off. It seemed like she was irritated because we’d let this one measure get away from us and was grumpily telling us to get on it. I was livid: I felt underappreciated and disrespected. 

When Our Minds Become Our Own Worst Enemies

I’m grateful for my mind. It allows me to play with exciting ideas and solve problems. But it’s also the source of most of my misery. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of our suffering is self-induced. A little bit of overthinking can turn obstacles into threats – to our well-being, our happiness, and our sense of ourselves.

A little bit of overthinking can turn obstacles into threats – to our well-being, our happiness, and our sense of ourselves.

As I mentioned in part one of this two-part blog series, much of this misery is caused by falling into “thinking traps”: patterns of thought that contribute to stress, trigger anxiety, and pull us into feeling depressed. When I received that email, my mind immediately fell into a bunch of thinking traps. I gave a long list of them in part one, so I won’t repeat them all here. But I’ll mention three that are relevant to my emotional reaction when I received that email. 

One of my favorite thinking traps is catastrophizing. It’s such a great word; it’s also something I do a lot. Catastrophizing means overestimating the consequences when something negative happens. Like when you stress out because you’re stuck in traffic and it’s likely you’ll miss the beginning of the movie you’re going to. In your mind, the movie is ruined and your evening is destroyed. You’re making a catastrophe out of the situation.

Another is mind-reading, which means assuming you know what people are thinking without having the facts to back it up. I’m really good at this one, too. Someone walks by my desk without saying hello or says something a little curt, and my mind is off to the races, constructing a story about how they’re disappointed with me or dissatisfied with my work. 

Finally, I’ll mention should statements. These are rigid rules for how the world should operate and how people (including yourself) should think, feel, and behave – statements like “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “He should do that differently.” It’s expecting the world to be a certain way and getting bent out of shape when it doesn’t conform to those expectations.

It turns out there is a stepwise method for addressing thinking traps like these that gives us a little freedom from their tyranny. It’s called reappraisal.

Reappraising Your Thoughts

Reappraisal means slowing down, looking at what’s going on in your mind, and evaluating your thoughts. It’s especially helpful when you’re having a strong emotional response. It’s a skill you can easily learn, and though it seems pretty basic, following the steps below can help reduce the intensity of a painful emotion and lead to more effective actions. I think it’s especially helpful if you do this exercise on paper, because seeing the words on the page can help create some distance between you and your thoughts. Let’s look at what I would have done if I had followed this method when I was so stirred up by that email.

Step 1 – Identify the situation. What happened just before you had the strong emotional reaction?

I would have written something like: “I just received a one-line email from the chief of staff asking me to address another performance measure.” Notice how I stuck to the facts, with no interpretations.

Step 2 – Rate the strength of your emotion. On a scale of 0 to 100, rate your emotional reaction. 

I think I would have rated my anger at about 90. I was furious – when I first received the email, I had to immediately get up from my desk and take a walk. (I admit, I might’ve been a little over-caffeinated before I even received the email.) 

Step 3 – Identify the thought. Articulate the thought or thoughts that accompanied your reaction. 

If I stepped back, noticed my thinking, and wrote it all down, it probably would have looked like this: "Are you kidding me? We have worked enormously hard on paying attention to these metrics and we’ve done a great job. How dare she pile another one on us without acknowledging our successes or thanking us for our hard work? She has no idea how much work this requires and she doesn’t appreciate us. This is just going to elevate our stress in the middle of all the other things we have to do."

Step 4 – Identify the thinking trap(s). Look at the list of thinking traps and identify the one(s) you’ve fallen into.

If I’d examined my thinking, I would have noticed the three thinking traps I described earlier. I was catastrophizing by telling myself that my staff and I would be overwhelmed with stress. (This is a big one for me: my mind is always predicting that I will be excessively stressed out.) 

I was definitely doing some mind-reading: I interpreted the chief’s behavior as evidence that she didn’t appreciate us and wasn’t sensitive to what we were going through. Finally, I had a lot of “shoulds” about how she was supposed to communicate her wish that we get moving on this new performance measure. (This is also a common one for me – I can stew pretty hard on what I consider “bad” social behavior, whether it’s in person or over email.)

Step 5 – Gently question the thought(s). Challenge your thoughts without arguing with yourself. Beware of trying to suppress or control your thoughts. Gently and with curiosity ask yourself one or more of the following questions:

  • Do I have enough information to support my conclusion?
  • What’s the evidence for and against this thought?
  • Is this thought a habit of mind? Do I tend to think things like this in similar situations?
  • If the worst were to happen, how would I deal with it? Have I dealt with situations like this before?
  • What would I tell a friend in the same situation?

If I’d asked myself these questions I would have written the following: "I don’t have enough information to support my conclusion; I don’t have much evidence for my thoughts; catastrophizing stress, assuming the worst about people’s intentions, and over-focusing on the way people communicate are definitely habits of my mind; and I would tell a friend to slow down, take a deep breath, and reconsider how they were interpreting the situation."

Step 6 – Generate alternative responses. Once you’ve challenged the thought, generate some alternative thoughts. Come up with as many you can to show yourself how many ways there really are to interpret a situation.

Here’s what I might have come up with: "It’s just as likely that the chief appreciates all the work we’ve done and has confidence that we can tackle this measure as well as the other ones we’ve addressed. She might just be writing short emails to clear her inbox in one of the brief moments that she’s free – she’s incredibly busy, much more so than I am. I would like her to show more appreciation, but it’s likely that she will show that appreciation face-to-face the next time my team meets with her. And if she doesn’t, I’ll make sure to trumpet our successes." 

Ironically, the following year I found myself working very closely with her, and I discovered two important things: she receives more emails than she can count and can barely get through them, and she had a lot of respect for what we had done in the mental health service.

Step 7 – Rate the strength of your emotion again. On a scale of 0 to 100, rate your current emotions. Notice if anything has changed. Don’t discount small changes. 

My anger was pretty high and probably needed some time to pass regardless of what I told myself, but I think this exercise would have brought me down to about a 30 or 40. That would have been much more manageable, and inspired less chest thumping and “woe is me” in the meeting.

When you do this for yourself, don’t worry if your emotional rating doesn’t change dramatically. That’s not always possible. What you’re doing is disrupting the process of your thoughts stirring up your emotions unnecessarily and your reactions persisting longer than they need to. Emotions always have a beginning, middle, and end. They eventually fade. But with intention, you can have an impact on how long that middle phase lasts and prevent your reaction from spiraling and taking you into darker places.

 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matthew S. Boone, LCSW is the Creative Director of Clinical Content at Lyra Health. He is a nationally recognized trainer in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and the editor of the book Mindfulness and Acceptance in Social Work.