By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Poor mental health can be the result of bad thinking habits.
People diagnosed with both depression and anxiety disorders often engage in a lot of thinking behaviors that therapists call “unhelpful thoughts.” Sometimes these unhelpful thoughts are called dysfunctional or irrational thoughts. I prefer the term unhelpful thoughts because when you have them you don’t experience them as either illogical or dysfunctional. What may be missing from these discussions is how often those “unhelpful thoughts” are the result of bad thinking habits.
Recently I have been reading some research on habit formation. When we talk about bad habits, we are usually talking about behaviors. But experimenters have shown that they can influence how people think about events, and with enough practice, people can learn automatically to have very “unhelpful thoughts.” Let me give you an example.
How to create an unhelpful thought.
One way to measure unhelpful thought formation is to have people complete a sentence whose ending is ambiguous. Imagine for a moment that a friend’s child or grandchild has come over to your house for a visit. The child is full of energy and wants to go out in your backyard and play. Let’s assume the back yard is fenced. And that you don’t live in a neighborhood with a lot of drive-by shootings.
After 10 minutes, you look out to check on the child, and what you see is this child is ______.
How did you fill in the sentence? People who are high in anxiety or depression often fill in the sentence by imagining that the child is: missing or dead. If you are high in anxiety and try to anticipate all possible negative outcomes, you are likely to worry about things and imagine the worst possible alternative. People with depression also show bias towards unhelpful thoughts.
People who are lower in worry or depression are likely to complete the sentence with something like – After 10 minutes you look out to check on the child, and what you see is this child is _____, playing with a ball, or excitedly running around chasing the dog.
People whose worry rule is “only worry about the big things” are likely to imagine the neutral or happy endings for the sentence. People whose worry rule is “worry about every possible negative outcome” are much more likely to imagine something terrible has happened to the child.
The way you complete the sentence alters the way you think and behave.
People who repeatedly complete ambiguous sentences with negative or unhelpful endings become increasingly depressed or anxious. You can start to mistakenly believe that by keeping the child in the house, you are protecting them from undesirable outcomes. Unfortunately, children who don’t get to go out in the yard and play and are kept continuously where the adult can see them are often babysat by TVs and electronic devices.
The results of your unhelpful thinking that if the child can play in the backyard, something terrible will happen to them, results in children who don’t get enough exercise and are at increased risk of developing type II diabetes and ADHD.
It’s easier to develop a bad thinking habit than to change them.
When people come for counseling, they tend to believe that if they think something is dangerous, it is. Therapists call that emotional reasoning. And it is an especially unhelpful thought. Most of these unhelpful thoughts people have been practicing for a long time. And just like behavioral habits, unhelpful thinking habits can be hard to change.
The first step in changing unhelpful thoughts is to notice that you have developed certain thinking habits. Becoming aware of those unhelpful thoughts can help you to start challenging them and to develop more helpful thinking habits.
A warning about trying to change thinking habits.
Don’t try to change a negative thinking habit into an unrealistically positive thinking habit. We often use positive affirmations to help people move from negative thoughts to positive ones. But don’t try to fool your brain by lying to it. In the example above of the child playing in the backyard, it’s best to substitute a more neutral outcome for the negative one you habitually think. Don’t try telling your brain that your child is so smart that nothing terrible will ever happen to them. Your brain will know you’re lying and disregard that kind of positive affirmation. He also may want to check on the child every few minutes just to reassure yourself.
Become aware of your thoughts and how unhelpful thoughts may have become a bad thinking habit you need to work on changing.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
Six David Joel Miller Books are available now!
Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.
Dark Family Secrets: Some family secrets can be deadly.
What if your family secrets put you in danger?
Letters from the Dead The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.
What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead?
Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.
Planned Accidents The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.
Sasquatch. Wandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive?
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