According to clinical neuropsychology PhD candidate Nawal Mustafa, negative thought patterns that can lead to feeling overwhelmed often aren't accurate pictures of what's really going on. These thoughts are called cognitive distortions, which "are exaggerated or irrational thoughts that have the power to negatively distort how we perceive reality," Mustafa says. "They play a significant role in perpetuating our psychopathological states—like depression or anxiety. These maladaptive thought patterns are usually automatic and can be difficult to identify if we aren’t aware of them."
One example of a cognitive distortion that Mustafa says that can lead to feeling overwhelmed is the notion that in order to feel accomplished, you must complete your whole to-do list. Because, she says, when you stop to really think about it, that thought is rarely if ever the case. So, when thoughts of that nature creep up, work to reframe them into something more rational. With the above example, this can look like: "I have accomplished so much today. It's okay to leave some tasks for tomorrow."
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What leads to cognitive distortion?
There are three common types of cognitive distortions—catastrophizing, “should statements,” and overgeneralization—and Mustafa says it's natural to experience them from time to time. "Catastrophizing occurs when we imagine an unfavorable outcome to a situation and believe this outcome will most likely occur," Mustafa says. For example: "My kid will definitely fail fifth grade if I don't figure out how to help her with her math homework."
“'Should statements' are a type of distorted thought that forces us to focus on how things should be based on the unrealistic expectations we have for others or ourselves," Mustafa says, pointing to the aforementioned scenario of having to get everything on your to-do list done to feel accomplished as an example of this type of cognitive distortion.
Overgeneralization, the third type, happens when we draw an incorrect conclusion about something universal based on an isolated experience. For example, "I completely stammered through the presentation I did last month, so the same thing will surely happen again today."
All three types of cognitive distortion stem from biased beliefs and perspectives we hold for ourselves and the world around us, Mustafa says. (For example, using how busy someone is as a measure of their success is a cognitive distortion that stems from the glorification of hustle culture.) These perspectives can directly shape our expectations of ourselves—but through mindful intention, we can course correct.
3 steps to help you reframe distorted thoughts into rational ones
1. Acknowledge your cognitive distortion
The first step for reframing a cognitive distortion into a more rational thought, Mustafa says, is to first acknowledge it. "Name the feeling and try to focus on what thoughts were running through your mind when you were feeling this way," she says. "Asking a simple question such as, 'is this thought true?' goes a long way."
"Name the feeling and try to focus on what thoughts were running through your mind when you were feeling this way. Asking 'is this thought true?' goes a long way." —PhD candidate Nawal Mustafa
When you follow the thought through logically, the untruth leading to it is easier to spot. With catastrophizing, for example, the worst possible scenario we often imagine isn't going to happen; Mustafa says just acknowledging that reality can be powerful, and the same line of thought also applies to overgeneralizing. "Just because you get rejected on a date doesn't mean you'll never find love," she adds.
2. Remind yourself of your self-worth and value
If you find yourself thinking "should" cognitive distorted thoughts on a regular basis, there may be underlying issues of self-worth you might consider addressing with a therapist. "Focusing on how things should be based on the unrealistic expectations we have for others or ourselves can sometimes be an attempt to motivate ourselves, but ironically it leads to guilt and self-criticism," Mustafa says.
While the deeper work of addressing the root issues of low self-worth takes time, emotional space, and energy, in the moment, she suggests you can stop and remind yourself that how much you accomplish or how well you do on something is not tied to your value. Similarly, she reminds that labeling yourself in a negative light, such as "stupid" or "useless," because of something that happened is not only unhelpful, but also completely false. "Human beings are too complex to fit under a simple label or category," she says.
3. Use rational evidence to orient your thoughts
When you're flipping the script in your mind, Mustafa says the key is finding evidence against the distortion. For example, if you're worried you'll bomb a work presentation because the last one you did didn't go so well, think of a time when a presentation you gave did go well, or remind yourself of everything you did to prepare. Or if you can't help but think your day won't be successful unless you get through the 12 things on your to-do list for work, consider what would happen if you asked to move a phone call or meeting to later in the week, or asked for an extension on a deadline. Would everything fall apart? Likely not.
Finally, while you can reframe certain cognitive distortions, know that the hack won't nullify all overwhelming feelings that arise. Sometimes life truly is overwhelming, and that's when you might consider asking for help, whether by talking to your partner, manager, therapist, or a wider support system. What's most important to remember is that you don't have to live in a constant state of overwhelm.
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