Some of the funniest ads are the ones that highlight and exaggerate the crazy things people do. Take those DirectTV ads. These are the ones that brilliantly take the viewer through an exaggerated course of “if/then” thinking, beginning with “if you pay too much for cable…” and ending with “…then you will wake up in a roadside ditch” or “…then you will wind up reenacting scenes from Platoon with Charlie Sheen”. These ads present our natural human inclination to engage in worst case scenario thinking and then multiples it times a hundred.
But really, who hasn’t engaged in a little “if-I-do-that, I’m-going-to-wind-up-in-a-roadside-ditch-some-day” kind of thinking?
Just this morning, I went down one of my regular, what I call, Mommy rabbit holes of thinking.
My daughter left food in her bedroom again.
If she leaves food in her room, we are going to invite in rats.
If we have rats, they will invite in all of their close friends and relatives.
If we have families of rats, we will have to move out.
If we have to move out, we will be homeless.
If we are homeless, we’ll wind up reenacting scenes from Platoon with Charlie Sheen.
OK, maybe I stopped myself BEFORE I got to the scenes from Platoon.
Regardless, this thinking was not helpful to my situation with my daughter. I know that these rabbit holes inevitably lead me to some pretty uncomfortable feelings while at the same time making it more difficult for me to productively solve the problem at hand. I wish I could say I’m alone with my bouts of distorted thinking. I’m not. Thinking like this is not uncommon. The Direct TV execs knew this when they wrote their ads.
There are actually several different types of distorted thinking patterns; all of which can be both insidious and self-destructive. Here are a few:
- Time traveling or suffering defeats that haven’t happened yet: “I’m never going to succeed in life if I can’t even pass a stupid test.”
- Catastrophizing or believing the worst: “If my son continues to act like this, he is going to get kicked out of school and live in my basement for the rest of my life.”
- Self-judgement or highly critical internal voice: “I’m such a bad father/mother. My kid hates me.”
- Projections of self-criticism or believing that others believe the worst about you: “She just laughed at me because I’m so bad at singing.”
- Overestimating likelihood or exaggerating the likelihood of unpleasant events happening: “I can’t go to the party. Nobody will talk to me.”
- Overestimating consequences or exaggerating the likely consequence of a behavior: “Dad/Mom will ground me for a month if I don’t get an ‘A’ on this essay.”
Do any of these sound familiar to you? If so, there are some tools you can develop to manage your thoughts. One of the authors who I really enjoy reading on this topic is Tamar Chansky, a licensed psychologist, and the Founder and Director of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety. Chansky has dedicated her career to helping people understand, identify and then conquer anxious thinking. Her website features lots of resources as well as techniques for distinguishing normal worry from destructive distorted thinking. Because, as she explains, “when we understand the tricks our minds can play on us, we can approach the ups and downs of life with competence and clear thinking rather than get detoured by the unreliable stories worry tells us”.
So, let’s just say you are at the end of your own rabbit hole and hear yourself say: “My child is going to wind up in prison.” (Believe it or not, this thought occupies number one on the Rabbit Hole Hit Parade with the parents I see; second only to “My child is going to end up in my basement for the rest of my life.”) Not useful thoughts.
Here are Chansky’s four simple steps for reframing thoughts:
Step One: Pause and Re-label the thought
Consider the source of your thought. Take a moment to see it as an anxious thought, rather than a realistic one.
‘Hmmmm. Where is this coming from? How likely is this scenario?’
Step Two: Get specific and narrow
‘My son had a melt down at recess today and hit another kid. How can I help him to help himself?’
Step Three: Optimize
Expand the ways you look at the problem and come up with as many possible solutions as you can.
‘Well, I need more information from the school about what happened and when to determine a plan’.
Step Four: Mobilize
Get moving in a direction, one step at a time.
‘OK my first step is to call the school to set up a meeting’.
If you notice in the steps above, Chansky is not suggesting that you pass judgment about yourself when you have these challenging thoughts. Instead, she is asking you to look more closely at your thoughts, to swap your negative, fatalistic thoughts for more realistic, pragmatic ones.
Chansky’s book, “Freeing Yourself From Anxiety” is filled with strategies and techniques to help you manage your thinking more productively. Here are just a few I use myself:
- Practice deep breathing. Inhale calm and exhale negativity. Breathe in light; breathe out tension. Although meditation is a proven practice that brings great relief to those who are stressed, I haven’t been able to create the time and self-discipline to meditate consistently. A few deep breaths a couple of times a day go a long way in helping me destress.
- Teach your brain there’s a better way of handling transient worries. Instead of thinking, ‘I can never get everything done. My house is such a disaster,’ try ‘I’m tired and cleaning the whole house right now is not realistic for me. I’ll start with the dishes. And then see how I feel.’
- When you review your day, begin by listing the things that went well.
- Map out your anxiety. Draw two vertical lines down a piece of paper. Label the left-hand column, “What if’s” (worries) (I am feeling tired. My presentation tonight is going to be a disaster), the middle column, “What is” (facts) (I have prepared for this presentation well. Typically my presentations get good feedback from the audience), and the right-hand column, “What else?” (what you think is most likely to happen.) (I don’t like when I don’t have my usual high energy, but I’ll give it what I’ve got and that typically results in a good enough presentation.)
- Challenge the authority of your negative assumptions. Instead of “I could NEVER go to a party where I don’t know anyone,” ask yourself, “What could I do to make myself more comfortable with going to a party where I don’t know people?”
- Maintain your sense of humor. Whenever I am heading towards my own rabbit hole, I think about the DirectTV ads and purposely drive over the cliff in my head. It helps me with recovering perspective.
In Step treats kids and adults who struggle with worried thoughts and negative feelings in both group and individual settings. Here is some of what we offer: