Calm Capable Cognitive Distortions: How Do We Cope?

Photo by Vinicius “amnx” Amano on Unsplas

Remaining calm during these past few months has become increasingly difficult. Day to day stressors that in the past, may have appeared fairly innocuous, now have become overwhelming and in some cases feel insurmountable. Our ability to previously draw on a plethora of skills and resources often leaves us frustrated and incapable of accessing these life skills. Instead, we may feel like our feet are planted in a vat of cement. What is it that is keeping us stuck, unable to move forward?

During stressful times it is not uncommon for us to be impacted by psychosocial factors such as excessive worry or sadness. For those who have a diagnosed mental illness, the additional stress of a pandemic may further exacerbate the condition. As a result of excessive worry we may develop habitual, exaggerated, or irrational thought patterns called cognitive distortions. We all have these distortions and they are normal. However, they cause us to perceive reality inaccurately. In other words, our brain is tricking us. Instead of seeing ourselves as calm and capable, we see ourselves as just the opposite. Our beliefs become negatively distorted and we process all thoughts through a negative filter. However, if we learn to challenge and ultimately change these negative thoughts, we cannot only change how we think but also how we feel.

How do we change these cognitive distortions? First, we need to understand what these distortions are and if any of these distortions apply specifically to you. Are you tending to view things more negatively than they really are? View the following 10 most common distortions and decide which ones you may be using most frequently.

All-or-Nothing Thinking; { black and white thinking} Example: This pandemic is awful! I can’t do anything fun anymore. I feel like I’m in a prison. What’s the point of even getting out of bed?

All or Nothing Thinking ( black and white thinking ) You might say to yourself : “This pandemic is awful. I can’t do anything fun anymore. I feel like I am in prison. What’s the point of getting out of bed? Nothing ever works out the way I want it to.”

Overgeneralization: ( attributing a negative outcome based on one single event or incident ) “I tried to practice music on my own, but I just could not focus. Everyone else seems to be able to do it. It must just be me who can’t. I failed when I tried to do my Biology . What’s the use of trying? I will fail every time I try.

Discounting The Positive [believing the positive attributes you possess have no value) My teacher told me I did really well in the last practice, but I know he’s just saying this to make me feel better because I have been feeling sad lately.

Mind Reading : ( Assuming that you know what other people are thinking without having any evidence ) “My dad seemed really quiet today. He didn’t even say good morning. I think he’s angry with me.”

Fortune Telling; ( Jumping to conclusions and predicting future events based on a past event) “I messed up on the last practice. I’m never going to get this music piece correct.”

Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimizing: ( Binocular Trick: When viewing through binoculars, it allows us only to focus on what we are looking for. We either magnify or zero in on a specific feature, not allowing for a true perspective or view. ) “I only got a 60% on my last quiz. I’m probably going to fail this course. I got 90% on all my tests but I am really unsure whether I will have the marks needed to get into my university program of choice.” 

Emotional Reasoning; (Allowing our feelings to interpret our reality. I feel it, therefore it must be true.) “I feel my life is totally out of control because of this pandemic.”  “I feel worried, therefore I must have anxiety. I feel sad, therefore I must be depressed.”

Should Statements;  ( Stop Shoulding on Yourself! ) “I should be helping out more at home during this difficult time.”  Or: “ My parents tell me every day I should feel lucky because others have it a lot worse thanI do. ”I should be doing better in school even though we are in a global pandemic.  “I should get 90”s and if I don’t I am a failure.”

Labeling and Mislabeling; (Attributing one error or decision as a specific trait) “I messed up on the last question on the test. It was so easy. I am such an idiot.” 

Personalization. ( Blaming yourself for everything that may go wrong. It’s not all about you. Others may own a part or all of the situation ) “My parents seem to be arguing a lot more since we’ve been isolated. Maybe I’m irritating them. I need to be better so they don’t argue so much.” Or “My relationship ended because I was not exciting enough and could not spend more time with _____ during the pandemic. “

You may have recognized yourself in some of these distortions. By now you will probably have identified the ones that ring true for you. So in order to remain calm and capable, you must remind yourself of how counter productive these distortions can be. Instead, take time to reframe your thoughts so they more clearly reflect the true picture.

Enlisting friends, family members, coaches, teachers or anyone you trust enables you to better challenge these distortions. This provides for a wide viewed, as opposed to a narrow lens approach. You can now see yourself from a whole new perspective, as a calm, capable, young person, better able to manage the ever-changing world around you.

Siblings In Separate Homes

Growing up in a home with seven siblings, I somehow grew up under the false pretence that we all had very similar experiences and therefore would share many of the same beliefs, values, and memories. As the years went by, and we siblings grew older, we would often get together and share stories about days gone by. Though it was evident that we certainly had some of these shared experiences, it also became increasingly clear that we indeed did not grow up in the same home.

As I moved forward into a career in education and counselling not growing up in the same home seemed to be a common misnomer of many people I encountered, including, friends, colleagues, and clients. It was often expressed out of a sense of frustration, “But we grew up in the same house, why is he so different than me?” or ” I always remember my parents being very supportive but that’s not how my sister sees it?” Examining my own family, it certainly is not a stretch that the experiences I had and those of my siblings would have been quite different, as in some cases we were born a generation apart. Many things can and do change in a generation. Families grow, illness may impact families, parenting skills change, personal experiences vary, financial situations ebb and flow, and a myriad of personalities evolve and interplay in the family unit. Not to mention, the world around us is constantly changing.

However, sometimes it is difficult to let go of our story as we have told and retold it so many times. Sometimes, even viewing baby pictures may illicit memories that were most likely not memories of the actual event but a memory retold by an older sibling or parent. Add to this, the tendency to often assign meaning to particular events. If your parents were financially able to gift a younger sibling with something that earlier on they could not afford to do for you, you may interpret this as playing favourites. You may have had a hurtful reaction to this event and further perceived slights might add to a belief of “not being good enough.” This lens of resentment as the least favoured child starts to build your story. As we move into adulthood, and in particular if we become parents, some enlightenment seems to emerge. We may even be able to reframe the events and gain some healthy perspective regarding our childhood experiences.

Unfortunately, for many it may take years of reflection and in some cases professional help to process and move forward in our lives. Additionally, if we become super focused on the event, boxing ourselves into these experiences, our beliefs become our truth. Anything or anyone who challenges these beliefs needs to be avoided or quieted. Confirmation bias may have just seeped into our thinking, leaving us closed to new ways of thinking about the topic. We may also become more likely to seek out and surround ourselves with those who support us without challenging or reflecting an alternate reality. There also becomes a tendency to be less likely to seek help, or believe those who are the experts. Sound familiar? This appears to be reminiscent of what is presently taking place in the United States government’s handling of the pandemic, leaving a nation baffled and confused, and not knowing who to trust or believe.

In order to grow and gain more clarity regarding any situation, whether it be a personal situation or one of more global significance we must always challenge ourselves to think outside of the box. We need to listen to the experts (while still questioning), to not just believe what we read on FaceBook and the internet, to have challenging conversations with those who may oppose our views, and always be prepared to grow and never stop learning. Let’s question those long held stories that tell the tale of us all growing up in the same house. Let us be more reflective and welcome all the stories with a sense of curiosity and openness to learning. Let us be more introspective and cautious of our vernacular, as our words can be very powerful. And as we reexamine the idea of your family all growing in the same house, just for a moment I hope you might reflect on a new idea that living in the same house and growing up in the same home are not necessarily one and the same.

Riding The Roller Coaster of Emotions

A roller coaster ride has never been something that has really appealed to us even in the best of times. Yet, in the day to day living during this pandemic, it has certainly replicated the highs and lows of the ride, as we deal with a plethora of emotions.

Are you feeling positive one day , then not so much the next day? One day you might be feeling excited, then the next day you may be feeling sad. One day you are full of energy , the next day you feel exhausted. One day you feel courageous , the next day you feel scared. All of these feelings are valid given the present circumstances. A wide range of emotions may be your day to day reality.

The more we focus on any situation in our lives , the more real it becomes. In the case of the pandemic, when we are inundated 24-7 with information that may or may not be clear, we have a tendency to get lost in all the negativity . This can lead us to feeling overwhelmed and sometimes we are unable to cope effectively. However, we are capable of refocusing and reframing  our feelings, thoughts and actions.

So how do we refocus, distract and take action?

Refocus by focusing on what you can do or control, not what you can’t do or control.

Distract yourself by : 

1) Engaging in some activity that you have wanted to previously try, but did not have the time to do.

 2) Reflecting on any positives that could have occurred personally or in the world around you because of covid19.

Take action by: 

1) Prioritizing your mental, physical health and well being. Do what works for you whether that be taking a daily physically distanced walk, doing online yoga, eating healthy, listening to or creating beautiful music and/or journaling.

2) Reaching out to others who may feel more isolated and letting them know you care by your words and actions.

3) Utilizing coping strategies such as positive self talk, connecting with friends virtually, using an online app such as headspace or calm. Or you can go to our virtual calm space and chill.

4) Acknowledging your feelings and allowing yourself to grieve.

5) Challenging yourself to make the most of each day by setting up daily rituals that allow for structure.

As our governments prepare us to move back into a staged entry of some sort of normality, our instinct might be to embrace this sense of freedom to the full effect.Though we see hopeful signs of recovery, we must manage this taste of freedom with reasonable caution. Jumping off the rollercoaster when the ride is not yet over could be dangerous at the very least, and deadly in the worst case scenario. 

So sit tight, stay safe and remain hopeful knowing there will be an end to this challenging time.

Is This Normal?

Throughout my many years working as a psychologist, countless times I have often been asked the question by friends, colleagues, and clients :”Is this normal?” They may be referring to a variety of different things from a certain feeling they are experiencing, a reaction they may have had to a particular scenario, or a situation they may have witnessed or watched outside their own circles. Now though this may appear to be a fairly innocuous question with a pretty simple yes or no answer, the truth is it is far from simple.

What are people really wanting to know when they ask this question? They are checking to see: “Am I O.K ? Do I fit in? Is there something wrong with me? Is it ok to have these feelings, or thoughts? Am I alone with these thoughts or feelings or do others have them too?” It is human nature to want to fit in, to want to belong, to be part of a group or community. What is wrong with that? It’s normal, right?

Unfortunately, in a world filled with instant access to information at our fingertips Dr. Google may lead us down a path that is not only not helpful, but indeed could be destructive. Compound that with the barrage of messages that touts us with that we are not thin enough, young enough, pretty enough, smart enough.

The advent of social media may leave teens in a vulnerable place where they can be criticized or bombarded with negativity. We are told that depression and anxiety have increased exponentially, yet Canadian studies indicate that cases of anxiety have remained steady for the past 20 years .

According to Statistics Canada in 2012 about 3.5 million Canadians, or 12.6%, will meet the criteria for a mood disorder during their lifetime. A total of 2.4 million Canadians reported symptoms consistent with anxiety disorder. 20% of youth, 1 in 5 suffer from a mental disorder.

While these issues are very real and do impact people’s lives in so many ways, we need to be careful and thoughtful in labelling what otherwise may be feelings of sadness as depression or feelings of worry as anxiety.

Sadness and worry are very normal feelings during this time of a pandemic. Just the other day a friend of mine expressed feelings of sadness, worry and confusion with this prolonged self isolation. She asked the question, “Is this just me or are other people feeling this way?” I assured her she was not alone in her feelings and gave her some practical suggestions to help mitigate the situation so she did not become overwhelmed or feel incapacitated by those feelings.

In my career I have always professed to all of my clients that your feelings are not categorized as right or wrong, good or bad, but rather a gift of humanity. What is important is what we do with those feelings, how we manage them. It’s o.k. to be angry , but it’s not o.k. to hurt someone because of that anger. It is equally important to understand when these feelings are truly normal and natural given the specific circumstances . They ebb and flow and will come and go as we work through them. They are worry and sadness and do not need to be labelled as anxiety and depression.

Too often as parents and adults we may want to jump in and fix feelings so that the person feeling them doesn’t hurt as opposed to acknowledging the feelings and then having the person to work through these feelings the best way they know how or with our assistance. Identifying these feelings with the proper label and trying some practical relaxation methods such as: deep breathing, talking to a trusted friend, and positive self talk, can allow us to actually feel sad , scared, or worried. It helps to know we are o.k. and can gain a sense of our own power and self control.

For others however, the feelings may become too much with which to cope and even with the use of strategies can become overwhelming. If this occurs and persists across time to the point where the feelings interfere with day to day functioning this is a red flag. The frequency, intensity and duration matter and are indicators that it could come be the time to seek professional help. Just remember, reaching out is a strength, not a weakness.

For us as professional caregivers, we have a role to play in ensuring we truly understand the difference between “worried well” and someone who truly is suffering from a mental disorder. We need to constantly remind ourselves that the client is always at the front and centre of our practice. Our first priority is and always should be to develop a safe and trusting relationship with our clients so we better understand their story. Only when we see the person as who they are and not just as a diagnosis can we be truly effective.

So how does a health professional make a diagnosis of depression or an anxiety disorder and what tools and processes guide the diagnosis?

When making a diagnosis, psychologists and psychiatrists often look to determine whether what is happening to their client falls within the norm of behaviour for that client’s particular age, circumstances, and other contributing factors such as family history etc.

To form a specific diagnosis such as clinical depression or a type of anxiety disorder , a tool called the Diagnostic Statistical Manual {DSM-5} is used to see if clients meet the required number of specific criteria. Clinical interviews add to the information used to assess. In dealing with something as complex as the human mind, we need to be very judicious in the use of this tool. It is not just a matter of asking the right questions and ticking the boxes. So many other factors come into play when you are dealing with the human psyche.

We as mental health professionals must hold ourselves to higher standards of practice. As Dr. Allen Frances (former chair of DSM-1V Task Force) writes in his bestselling book, Saving Normal, “People forget the wisdom of Hippocrates:” “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” Of course, best practice would include looking at both. Just like any tool, The DSM has its’ place and function, but we must be careful not to rely on it in and of itself. Let us see beyond the symptoms and ask the right questions. In our vocabulary, let us bring back those everyday words like, sad, worried, afraid, distracted; that signify normal responses to a particular event or circumstances. Instead of catastrophizing day to day sadness and worries, let us give our kids and families strategies to build resiliency. Let us have a clearer understanding of what is normal so we can respond correctly and get help for those who need it when they need it.

Is this normal is a very complex question. One that certainly cannot be answered in a few short paragraphs. Those answering this should keep in mind mental health literacy , understanding data , what evidence based research is really saying and acknowledging that humans are complex beings who we are still learning from on a daily basis.

Gratitude In A Difficult Time

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Gratitude is something that may not always be easy to feel or express, particularly of late. It seems that anytime we turn on television we are met with more tragedy and sadness, from pandemic updates, to killings in Nova Scotia, to major flooding in Fort Mc Murray Alberta, and most recently the downing of a military helicopter in the Ionian Sea. Yet amidst all this angst so many of us have found ways to reach out, to lend a helping hand, to bring joy to others who are alone. Instead of allowing anger and sadness to prevail we have risen to the challenge. We have witnessed an uplifting of others in acts both big and small that in and of themselves may not appear to be heroic. However, at their very core they are just that and at their best, they reflect genuine expressions of gratitude for all the goodness we experience in our fragile world.

What is gratitude? If you google the word or look it up in the dictionary , it defines it as: the quality of being thankful, readiness to show appreciation for and return kindness. Yet how does gratitude come about? What circumstances or environments need to be present in order to create this sense of gratitude? Like many of us, my oldest son and his wife are now working from home. In a recent conversation, he spoke of spending more time with his sons which was both a gift ,but at times a challenge. This experience gave him cause to reflect and have a better understanding of what his wife’s experience was during her recent maternity leave, which gave way to a greater appreciation for his wife and his boys. He feels he is a better husband and father and because of all these things he is grateful.

Unfortunately we often take many things for granted and do not always have gratitude until something has slipped from our grasp. The pleasures of going to a concert or sporting event, hugging your kids or grandkids, visiting with your friends, skiing or hiking in our beautiful mountains may all have been things we may not have given a second thought to, yet just like that it’s gone. Gratitude often comes from stressful events, like we are presently experiencing. However, it also comes from having and taking the time to reflect on all the goodness in our life. The appreciation for people and things we have no matter how big or small. My dad was a very good role model for this. He lived with Addison disease and spent the majority of his life in and out of hospitals. He was always grateful for any days where he could cook and enjoy a family meal or share a laugh with friends. I remember a saying of his that has always stayed with me my whole life : “If you have your health, you have everything!” This statement is one that has always made me cognizant and truly grateful for my health and all the other gifts in my life.

Why is it important to be grateful? Looking beyond our own circumstances and having empathy towards others can make us more aware of our own situations. It presents us with an opportunity to reflect and reevaluate, inviting us to see things from a whole new perspective. Though there have not been meta studies in research, regarding the link between gratitude and happiness, one recent Harvard University study showed a very strong link between gratitude and our level of happiness. Showing gratitude could actually make you happier, and in a world where many of us are dealing with so many stressors in our daily lives, that is a welcomed friend.

So how can we create a culture of gratitude in our daily lives? There are a variety of things you can do, but you need to choose what works best for you. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

  • keep a gratitude journal and reflect on at least one positive thing each day, spend some quiet time reflecting and thinking about things in your life for which you are grateful
  • send a card to someone who may be going through a difficult time and let them know why you are grateful for them
  • volunteer with an organization that helps others who may be hurting
  • share your talents and teach someone a skill that you have and they may not
  • instead of telling someone else how you appreciate a colleague, friend,or family member tell them directly. They will be truly grateful!