Got Anxiety? Relationship between thoughts and emotions (part 3 of 4)
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
As we discussed in earlier articles, our emotions are rarely the result of life events we encounter on a daily basis.
Instead, our emotional reactions are most often due to our INTERPRETATION of the event; that is, the degree of MEANING we assign to our experiences.
A person’s immediate interpretation following an event is referred to as an “automatic thought,” since these thoughts occur faster than the speed of light.
Automatic thoughts have their origin in a deeper level of thinking, known as “core beliefs” — how we view ourselves, others, and the world we live in — and are associated with specific types of automatic thoughts.
For example, an individual with a core belief related to “abandonment,” will often find herself interpreting negative life events (e.g., an unexpected break-up) as indicative that she is unworthy of being loved by others, resulting in feelings of hopelessness, which then triggers depression.
When our automatic thoughts (interpretations) of life events are inaccurate, they are referred to as “cognitive distortions,” or maladaptive ways of thinking.
When a person consistently misattributes the meaning he or she assigns to situational events that bear a similarity to one another, the individual begins to form a pattern of thinking which then sets the stage for the emergence of negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression.
To put it simply, “how we think determines how we feel.”
There are specific types of cognitive distortions that are directly related to the development of negative mood states. Seen below, are 4 examples of common distortions, and their associated emotional responses.
Occurs when people hold themselves personally responsible for an event that is not entirely under their control.
For example, a mom receives a note from her daughter’s principal stating that she is having “learning difficulties” at school.
Upon reading the note, instead of attempting to discover the precise cause of the academic problems, the woman says to herself, “This just goes to show what a bad mom I am. I can’t even help my 2nd grader perform well in school. If I can’t be a good mom, how will I ever succeed at making my husband happy?”
Another example concerns the fact that some children believe that they are personally responsible for their parents’ divorce. Resulting Emotional Response: GUILT, INADEQUACY, DEPRESSION.
2. MIND READING
Also referred to as “Fortune Telling,” this type of distortion refers to instances in which a person assumes they know what other people are thinking in a given situation, based upon how others in the past have thought in similar scenarios.
Unfortunately, the individual fails to consider that these are different people, and perhaps he or she is a different person at this point in life as well.
Basically, the individual is arbitrarily (without considering any factual information), concluding that other people are negatively evaluating him or her in some manner.
This type of misappraisal is extremely common in those who suffer from Social Anxiety. Resulting Emotional Response: WORTHLESS, INEPT.
You view a single negative event, as a never-ending pattern of defeat, applicable to a great number of situations that extend far beyond the one in which you are currently experiencing.
Oftentimes, the words “always” or “never” are included in your self-statements when reviewing life events. A common example might include the abrupt ending of a romantic relationship.
Because of this negative experience, you assume that all future relationships of this nature will end with similar results.
Or, perhaps you had a bad experience with a new church or civic group you recently joined, resulting in your belief that any involvement in all future churches or organizations will “always” lead to bad outcomes. Resulting Emotional Response: ANXIETY, ANGER, HOPELESSNESS.
4. MENTAL FILTERING
This cognitive distortion occurs when a person is provided with feedback concerning a performance they have recently given.
For example, consider the situation in which an employee sat down with his supervisor to review his annual performance evaluation.
Throughout the meeting, the supervisor presented a great deal of praise and admiration for the individual’s work ethic, and even referred to him as “one of the best employees to ever work for the company.”
The only corrective feedback given concerned the need to turn in paperwork in a more-timely manner. Those who engage in Mental Filtering have a strong tendency to filter out positive feedback, while focusing SOLELY on the one critical comment made.
The person continues to ruminate on the corrective feedback, to the point of completely forgetting any positive comments that were discussed. Resulting Emotional Response: ANGER, DEPRESSION.
In Part 4, we’ll conclude this series by examining a few remaining cognitive errors frequently associated with the development of negative emotions.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit http://www.anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.