2-8 Learning to Reframe – Put a Label on It!

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Here I'm going to give you some common cognitive distortions based on the list developed by Dr. David Burns and his great book, The New Mood Therapy. So we've gone over a list of labels you can use to move yourself from an emotionally based framework to a more rational, calmed down part of the brain where you can more carefully analyze and reason away the distortions in your thinking. It seems that consciously finding a way to change the meaning of what's being experienced reduces the flood of stress-related neurotransmitters that are released by the hyper-vigilant amygdala.

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So what could I have done in reaction to my personal setback with my grades, or with any kind of setback that could have made for a healthier outlook? Putting a label on your feelings, in other words, putting your feelings into a few brief words is one of the most helpful mental tricks you can use when you find yourself being emotionally upset. Applying a label forces you to put your emotional feelings into words. And moving feelings into words helps you shift your thinking from the emotional centers of your brain to the more rational parts of your brain, which automatically begins to tone down your emotions. Fortunately, a field called cognitive therapy has developed a checklist of common emotionally-based distortions of thinking. This checklist provides an automatic set of labels. You can look at these brief descriptive words that I’m going to give you and see which ones fit the emotions you might be feeling when you’re upset. Once you’ve found the words for your feelings, voilà, you’re already beginning to move your thoughts from emotions to more rational cognitions. Not only does this labeling start helping to calm you down, it also helps you to more easily see the distortions In your thinking. Here I’m going to give you some common cognitive distortions based on the list developed by Dr. David Burns and his great book, The New Mood Therapy. It’s worth copying down these distortions and using them as labels to reflect on when something upsets you. Basically, when I felt badly about my grades, I was using every common cognitive distortion in the book. Let’s review them one at a time. First, I was using all or nothing thinking. I felt if I didn’t get good grades, I was a total failure. I mean, really. The reality was that I wasn’t a total failure by any stretch of the imagination. Even if I’d flunked out of the university, I wouldn’t have been a total failure. I was exploding the significance of that semester of poor grades. The reality was that even if I’d flunked out of school, and hadn’t been successful at changing my brain to be able to effectively study math, I likely would’ve found a way to go on and have a successful and happy life. And then there’s overgeneralization. I saw one semester’s failure as part of a series of failures in my life. Sure, I’d done badly that semester, but I’ve done badly before. As when I’d been a failure as a signal officer in the military. But previously, I’d also done well at some things, like studying Russian. When I thought I was a failure, I simply wasn’t looking at the bigger picture. I was overgeneralizing in thinking I’d always have bad grades. Remember Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman’s point? Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it. At that time, I felt like my life was a complete failure. I was obviously wrong. I was also using a mental filter. I was focusing on my one semester’s poor grades and obsessing on them and forgetting about everything else. Here were all these good and beautiful things around me everywhere, and I was ignoring them. I was also discounting the positive. I’d worked hard and previously been able to get good grades. I had a wonderful husband who I’d met at the South Pole station in Antarctica. I had my good health. I was also jumping to conclusions. Somehow, in my mind, I was predicting that things would go badly from then on. The reality was that I didn’t really know what was going to happen from then on out. I was also mind reading. Thinking that others were going to think badly of me. I really had no idea what other people, like my family, would think. I was falling victim to my own emotional reasoning. I assumed that just because I felt negatively about what had happened, that it really was a negative thing. Actually, my feelings had little to do with what was happening in the real world. The whole incident was equivalent to me feeling terrified of the airplane flight, and the flight was actually perfectly fine. I was telling myself I should have done better. Shouldy kind of thinking, these kinds of statements just aren’t helpful. They lead only to guilt, anger, and frustration. I was also using pejoratives of myself. I was telling myself I was stupid, I was an idiot, and that what happened was absolutely terrible. This kind of name calling does no good at all. In fact, it makes you feel bad about yourself and also leaves you feeling angry and frustrated. What happened was unfortunate, but it wasn’t terrible. In fact, getting a few bad grades really wasn’t a big deal at all in the greater scheme of how my life unfolded. Sometimes we take blame and assume responsibility for errors we didn’t make. Or we inappropriately blame others. In my case, I blamed myself for my bad grades. After all, I was to blame for getting away from my studies for a year. But did I really need to drag myself under the bus for having undertaken some great adventures? So we’ve gone over a list of labels you can use to move yourself from an emotionally based framework to a more rational, calmed down part of the brain where you can more carefully analyze and reason away the distortions in your thinking. In the discussion forum, you might want to mention something, anything that’s been bothering you. Then describe what cognitive distortion or distortions you may be using. It might be many of them. Finally, look logically at the distortions you’re using. What is the reality when you put things into a greater life perspective just as I’ve done with that past episode of my own life. Whenever you find yourself growing despondent, sit yourself down, think about what’s really bothering you, go back through those labels, and see how your mind is tricking you. Then develop a rational response. You’ll be surprised at how much better this can make you feel. There’s one more trick you can use to help positively reframe. And that is to find positive ways to think about a negative experience. For example, if you failed at business, think of it as a great learning experience that many ultimately successful entrepreneurs have also had. If you didn’t get the job you wanted, well, that’s leaving you open for a better job ahead. And meanwhile, it’s a great signal for you to upgrade your skills. Did poorly on an exam? Well, maybe that’s a clue to examine your study habits. Your best friend dying of cancer? Well, maybe you want to focus on trying to improve the quality of the life your friend has remaining. Positively reframing isn’t just mental trickery. It extinguishes negative emotions that are arising from that fight or flight center of the amygdala. It seems that consciously finding a way to change the meaning of what’s being experienced reduces the flood of stress-related neurotransmitters that are released by the hyper-vigilant amygdala. You might wonder what positive thing could possibly have come from my having rheumatoid arthritis? Simple, if it helps give you a visual reminder you can call to mind to help calm yourself down and reframe in the face of the stress that will inevitably arise in your life. I’ll be back.

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