distortions

Anxiety: Then and Now

This week we will look at the other side of the spectrum to a depressive disorder and explore anxiety disorders.

Once again, these are something that are experienced at exponential rates and can often be contributed to poor stress coping mechanisms and living in a high demand society. If you stop for even a minute and look at your life you will notice a dramatic difference from what it looks like now and what a person’s life looked like a mere 40 years ago. The “electronic age” has typically not made a person’s life easier; the way it was intended—it has made it more stressful and when combined with poor coping skills it is not difficult to understand how people on mass can become overwhelmed at a much higher rate. The “electronic age” was supposed to change the world whereby work would be easier, more automated, and safer. Some of these things have happened, but it has also brought a constant learning curve, an increase in work hours for many due to connectivity features, and a population that experiences higher than usual anxiety states.

Let’s explore the typical person’s life that is married with two kids and a white-collar job.

If we go back 40 years they likely lived reasonably close to their place of employment or lived in a smaller city then they do now and thus the commute was not an hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic with everyone else “rushing” to get into their office. On the way to and from the office people had time to think, to read (and not text messages or email), and to visit…basically not to work. Once at the office most were not faced with their own desktop computer or the hugely expensive “personal laptop” that they could take home at night in order to keep working. There was an “off switch” to the world of work. Once you got home from work, relaxed for a few minutes, you could take your kids to their respective activities often within your community or a community one over and have time to talk and visit with neighbours while your kids engaged in some form of play or entertainment.

Today people often commute one to two hours into their office and almost everyone has a cell phone, which is attached to his or her ear 24-7, and being on-call has been taken to a completely new level. Today most kids are in numerous activities (not just one or two) and the drop off and pick up times have extended dramatically. We have come to normalize the limited amounts of time that families spend together just interacting with each other; as the drive to and from these events are often accompanied by MP3 players, cell phones (with parents talking to someone and kids texting until their fingers are blue), and IPods. Once at home again, there is homework, office work, and house chores.

It is not surprising why people are more anxious—they work more, they interact (meaningfully) less, they are required to know more and continually upgrade this learning (just explore a new TV, cell phone, or computer), and most do not have well constructed boundaries or are trained in methods to manage stress. I know this is an over-simplified look into society but for many this is what has contributed to their response to “How are you?” to have become “Anxious!”

This week we will look at what a diagnosed anxiety disorder is, what managed stress looks like, and how to set and keep healthy boundaries in your world.

TODAY HAS STARTED—HAVE A GREAT ONE!

Anxiety versus Worry

The vast majority of people that experience anxiety symptoms (not a full anxiety disorder), do so from WORRY. As such, before we look at what anxiety disorders are we will explore the condition that affects a vast majority of the population. What is worry? By definition worry is a position or state where an individual torments oneself with or suffers from disturbing thoughts. Worry is also a habituated behaviour, which is a good thing—because behaviours can become alterable simply through replacement and practice.

So let’s explore worry at a deeper level; we’ll start with what worry is not…

  • It’s not simply thinking about future possibilities and the actions one would take if these occurred
  • It’s not becoming anxious because your current life situation is realistically in difficulty and you are finding it problematic to see a way out
  • It’s not looking at all the options in front of you when faced with a major life change
  • It’s not productive in any manner

So what is worry…

  • It’s obsessing about past and/or future events that may never happen or cannot be altered, to the degree that this causes feelings of anxiousness
  • It’s about not being able to remain present for lengthy periods of time because ones mind wanders off to think about events outside of their current experience
  • It’s evaluating past events or attempting to foresee future events from a current frame of focus that is inappropriate for either event; as current knowledge and stances may have altered past activities and will change by the time one reaches the future
  • It’s a time waster as most future events that are worried about never happen
  • It’s often accompanied by what are commonly known as “cognitive distortions” or distorted ways that people look at events

Here is the good news; if you are a worrier this is not a complex behaviour to alter. Below are some direct suggestions for stopping worry before it takes hold.

Go buy yourself a notebook or a journal and for everything that you worry about write this in the book. From there you could follow the below options.

If it is past events ask yourself the following question…”Is there anything I can presently do about this event”? If the answer is yes, take action and stop worrying about this. If the answer is no, write out what you would do if this same event were to occur over the next few months (you don’t want to apply this beyond a few months as you will know more as time goes on and you may develop better ways to handle this same event). If this is unalterable, then forgive yourself or others related to the features that are tormenting or problematic and allow yourself permission to move forward in life.

If what you are writing is about future events then ask yourself the following question…”What is the true likelihood of this event actually happening”? If the percentage is below 80% then do thought stopping (see below) to change this activity. If the percentage is above 80% then rather than worry take action! Write out all of the options you can take to address and influence this high potential activity and then act upon these directives rather than simply worry about the outcomes.

Thought Stopping: when you realize you are worrying about something internally YELL STOP and re-focus your attention to the current moment by focusing on the concrete features to where you are—sight, sounds, taste, touch, and smell. You can yell this in your outside voice, but this may be met with interesting responses by those around you.
TODAY HAS STARTED—HAVE A GREAT ONE!

Anxiety and Cognitive Disorders

For many people anxiety is the culmination and/or overuse of any one of the below listed common 10 Cognitive Distortions. Cognitive distortions are simply distorted ways that people interpret everyday events. We all do these things, the difference between normal use of cognitive distortions and problematic use of cognitive distortions is related to the frequency of their usage. If you are using any one or more than one of these distortions on a regular basis, it will create any number of difficulties including anxiety for some.

If you want to know if you are using these distortions keep track for two-weeks by keeping a checklist three times a day by simply asking, “Did I do any of these, if so which ones and how often since you last checked”? At the end of the two-weeks, simply total the number and see which one(s) you are using most frequently. Come back later for answers on how to alter these patterns.

All-or-Nothing Thinking: A work project fell short of perfect and so now you think it is a total failure.

Overgeneralization: You did not get that promotion so now you believe your career will never amount to anything.

Mental Filter: You handed in an exceptional project at work yet one of your co-workers wonders if you could have used a different folder; you focus exclusively on the folder versus the exceptional project.

Disqualifying the Positive: You did a great job on that project yet you attribute this to “just being your job” and re-focus your attention elsewhere.

Jumping to Conclusions: You see the world negatively even though there are no facts to support this either through mind-reading (thinking you know what other believe without proof of this) or fortune telling (you automatically believe something negative will happen without any reason as to why this might be).

Magnification and Minimization: You highlight and focus on your problems or defects and minimize your good qualities as unimportant.

Emotional Reasoning: You assume that if you see something as negative it must be that way even though others are likely to see it differently; you are unwilling to see things through the “eyes of the world”.

Should Statements: You frequently use the words should, have to, must in your language that sets you in a position of never doing things right.

Labelling and Mislabelling: You take one event and apply it to your whole life; you see a mistake as meaning you are stupid.

Personalization: A situation that you were not involved with goes poorly and because you have some association to the project, you blame yourself completely for the result even though it was not your work even.

TODAY HAS STARTED—HAVE A GREAT DAY!

Resolving Distortions – Part 1

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: A good example of this is having a relationship fail and telling yourself “well I’ll never be in another relationship”. There are a number of things that will result from holding onto that thought; you will likely degrade your esteem by putting yourself down suggesting that you aren’t good enough for relationships, it may hinder your willingness to explore other relationships because you think the next one will simply be a failure too, or you might reduce or compromise your expectations of a partner believing this is the best you will get. There are likely a thousand other negative beliefs, but lets stick with these potentialities. To resolve All or Nothing Thinking you can begin by Examining the Proof— do you really want to be alone for the rest of your life? If the answer is yes then alter the thought to “I chose to be alone versus in a relationship” (by doing this, you are taking back control and a more positive internal stance). Alternatively, if the answer is no, then ask yourself what is the REAL likelihood of NEVER having another relationship—the answer infinitesimal…so change the message to “I will be in another relationship when the right person comes along and I have resolved my issues related to the past relationship”. Again, this places you back in a position of a truer reality and stops sending negative messages. 

2. Overgeneralization: You received a low grade in school or failed one course and now you believe your career is over. There are a number of things that will result from holding onto that thought; you may unconsciously self-sabotage your current position as a means of proving that belief, you might switch careers that you really belong in to offset the potential for failure, or you might not apply for that job you always s wanted for fear that it will not succeed. To resolve overgeneralizations you can begin by Examine the Proof (see above examples) or try Double Standard—talk to yourself the way you would talk to someone else experiencing the same reality. Would you tell someone else that his or her career is doomed? Would you suggest they seek other career or employment options because of one low or failed mark? Of course not (if you would you might want to examine your friendship skills). So talk to yourself in the same manner; rebuild your damaged esteem from the loss, grieve the process, and tell yourself the real story…this is one course and you cannot be good at everything nor are you required to be good at everything related to your career.

3. Mental Filter: You handed in an exceptional project at work yet one of your co-workers wonders if you could have used a different folder; you focus exclusively on the folder versus the exceptional project. In Mental Filter, people are filtering only parts of an event and typically the negative aspects. To reduce this thought tactic use the Double Standard technique (see above) or try Performing a Survey…see how others see the job that you did. By finding people you trust they are likely to provide a more realistic observation both positive and negative to an event that you experienced.

4. Disqualifying the Positive: You did a great job on that project yet you attribute this to “just being your job” and re-focus your attention elsewhere. To adjust this pattern of thinking use the Pros/Cons list where you examine all of the positives to having worked on the project and the negatives. Also, list what the positives and negatives are to holding this belief. In doing the exercise, you will likely find that it can be fulfilling to explore and appreciate the positive contributions that you made and you will be able to see the benefit to changing your belief stance.

5. Jumping to Conclusions: You see the world negatively even though there are no facts to support this either through mind-reading (thinking you know what other believe without proof of this) or fortune telling (you automatically believe something negative will happen without any reason as to why this might be). This is one of the most common distortions. To combat this pattern consistently employ the skill of Examine the Proof—you cannot know what others think beyond a guess; if you want to know the reality, ask them versus assuming you know. Secondly, believing something negative will happen often has people anxious and worried a good deal of their time—perform a Pros/Cons list to thinking this way; what benefit do you receive by assuming negative things will happen to you. Better yet, what is the cost to you by holding these beliefs? Just as easily that one can think negative things will happen, you can also think positive things will happen—either of these situations keep you from being present in the moment and thus you miss your life as it unfolds.

Next time we will explore Cognitive Distortions 6-10.

TODAY HAS STARTED—HAVE A GREAT ONE!

Resolving Distortions – Part 2

6. Magnification and Minimization: You highlight and focus on your problems or defects and minimize your good qualities as unimportant. People who have difficulty accepting compliments will perform this on a frequent basis. Using either the Double Standard or the Pros & Cons list can assist in altering this pattern of thinking. It is unlikely you would permit a good friend of yours to simply degrade him or herself, so why do this to yourself. The other option is to keep a running list of your positive and negative characteristics—if you find an inability to be objective about this then use the Perform a Survey method and request that close friends or family provide you with five positive and five negative descriptors; be prepared for the feedback if you use this method.

7. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that if you see something as negative it must be that way even though others are likely to see it differently; you are unwilling to see things through the “eyes of the world”. This activity can create a very negative view of the world. It is important to remember that events themselves are neutral; it is us that place perceptions to these events. If we carry a skewed perception of reality or one that is negatively focused then we run the risk of living in a very unhappy space. To combat this use Perform a Survey to see what other possible perceptions exist and/or Examine the Proof—are you looking at the event in its totality or simply a specific component to the event. For some individuals, getting a broader view can be helpful in seeing all aspects to events including the possible positives. From there, it’s a matter of adjusting your focus to the positive features versus the negative aspects.

8. Should Statements: You frequently use the words should, have to, must in your language that sets you in a position of never doing things right. This is also one of the highly utilized distortions. In order to see how often you perform this thought and behavioral process, keep track of it in others—you will soon hear how often you use this too. The best way to combat this activity is to Define your Words. Instead of using the words like should, have to, must—begin using the statements of “choose to” and “choose not to”. This is both more accurate and allows for a repositioning of control in your environment. In one lecture series that I delivered I had one person tell me that they “had to feed their children”—they were a little surprised when I informed them that no, in fact, they did not “have to” feed their children but that they choose to because they were unwilling to live with the consequence of not feeding them (this is a good thing, but changing the language is still essential). The key here is consequences; we take actions to influence consequences—we do certain things to gain a positive outcome and others to avoid negative impacts.

9. Labeling and Mislabeling: You take one event and apply it to your whole life; you see a mistake as meaning you are stupid. To offset this globalization you can use Define your Words. Begin by defining in its totality the word you applied to yourself and ask if this is accurate of you in every and all situations. You will likely find this not to be true and thus it is essential to alter the words that you apply to yourself.

10. Personalization: A situation that you were not involved with goes poorly and because you have some association to the project, you blame yourself completely for the result even though it was not your work even. This is the result of over-responsibility and can be offset via Examine the Proof, Perform a Survey, or Define your Words. If you had some association with the overall project re-define what you are saying about your part or ask others to provide an interpretation once they know all of the parameters to the event.

Good luck in working through the distortions and again, only pick the two you use most and begin altering these…others might follow simply by making the changes to a few.

TODAY HAS STARTED—HAVE A GREAT ONE!