Sunday, 25 December 2011

The downward spiral: the fastest way down!

Ever have a train of thought, downward-spiral that goes something like this?

"I can't find my keys! I'm going to be late! If I'm late, the boss will be angry. If they're angry, they might not accept my report - if it doesn't get accepted, I'm going to get fired! If I get fired, I'll lose my house and my car! I'm going to end up homeless! It's all over, my life is done!"

That is an example of negative thought-associations... What starts as a single negative thought arising from a situation or comment quickly turns into a spiral of despair that's out of control and totally unreasonable!
The extreme feelings associated with the statements and beliefs that flow from a certain event are understandable: anyone who thinks this way truly believes the thoughts and the feelings correspond. They make sense.

People fighting anxiety and depression tend to have these types of thoughts and associations frequently, and they can be frightening or overwhelming and in some cases even lead to a panic attack. It's very easy to get hooked into following the associations your brain brings up - the "logical" series of events your anxious mind comes up with seems reasonable at the time.

The unfortunate outcome of these downward-spirals is that they can bring your mood down with them, or make a low mood even worse. So where did this pattern of negative thinking come from and how can you combat it?

If we do a quick analysis of the types of thoughts that flow from a potentially negative experience we’ll see what kinds of assumptions underlie the statements.

  • If I misplace my keys, I am going to be late
  • If I am late, I will enrage my boss
  • If he/she is mad, they will fire me
  • If I am fired, no one will hire me again!

If we do some prodding of the assumptions that are made in this thought-stream, we can point out some core beliefs: “I am air-headed.” “I am stupid and unreliable.” “I am unworthy.”
            The process of analyzing your automatic thoughts during a downward-spiral will help you to identify some of your personal core beliefs. (See 13 Beliefs to disbelieve).

Often, people might realize where this pattern of negative thinking arose in their life - maybe they picked it up from a parent who always stressed about really negative events and made "logical" connections to even worse possible events that may arise. Or perhaps your friends have influenced you over time. In any case, it's a behaviour that can be challenged and changed for the better.

1) Recognize the negative thoughts  as just negative thoughts. Thoughts are not reality. Remind yourself you can control your behaviour and you are not destined to fulfill every potential outcome your brain comes up with.

2) Ask yourself whether the thought is reasonable; that is, is this outcome likely to happen?
            ex: “My life will be over”
            Will your life really be over, or is it just going to be a little more complicated? Once you take things into perspective, from a more rational point of view, you’ll see that many of the thoughts in the downward spiral are irrational thoughts that come from ingrained beliefs.
3) Is this a negative bias against yourself?
            ex: “I always mess things up; I’m going to be a failure forever”
            This can’t possibly be true. Not one person in the world can mess everything up. In order to face this negative thought pattern-style you’re going to have to practice a little. In the moment, realize that you are applying a negative bias to yourself and the thought is not necessarily true. This will help dispel some of the anxiousness of the thought. In order to change your automatic negative bias you will have to practice writing in your journal.

Try taking a step back next time you end up overwhelmed over a seemingly trivial event or comment and identify the assumptions you might be making (write in your journal to keep track of how your thoughts change throughout the days and weeks). It’ll help you to be more aware of automatic thoughts.

                                                               Conquer on!

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