Discover the Root Cause of your Stress & Unhappiness
Posted: July 8th, 2021
Get to know most common thinking patterns, aka Mental traps, that are causing stress and misery in your life & relationships
Does any of this sound familiar?
- Nothing will ever get better.
- I’m not good enough.
- I’m such a loser.
- The world is a terrible place.
- Everyone else is better off than me.
- Why does everything always happen to me?
- I just can’t do anything right.
- People are such jerks.
- No one cares about me.
- I just can’t do this anymore.
- Life sucks.
If you have a number of these thoughts very often, and you believe them, you are destined to feel miserable in your life. All these thoughts are examples of unhelpful thinking patterns, aka mental traps, aka cognitive distortions.
Don't get me wrong, thinking is wonderful. Our ability to think means that we can plan, prepare, imagine and fantasize. But thinking can cause us problems too – we can worry, compare, and catastrophize. Many people feel overwhelmed by their thoughts and struggle with problems including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Thinking can literally make us sick.
In his book Why zebras don't get ulcers the biologist Robert Sapolsky says:
A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.
We all have thousands of thoughts per day. Did you notice what kind of thoughts do you think on a daily basis? If you pay attention to these thoughts, you would be amazed how many thoughts are negative and repetitive. On average humans have about 6200 thoughts per day. Of those thousands of thoughts, 80% are unhelpful and negative, and 95% are the same repetitive thoughts as the day before.
We can see that one of the tendencies of the mind is to focus on the negative and replay the same stories over and over again. As conscious beings we are always interpreting the world around us, trying to make sense of what is happening. Sometimes our brains take shortcuts and generate results that are not completely accurate. These shortcuts can result in different kinds of bias or distortions in our thinking, we'll refer to them as Mental Traps. Sometimes we might jump to the worst possible conclusion, at other times we might blame ourselves for things that are not our fault.
These distortions in our thinking, aka mental traps, happen automatically – we don’t mean to think inaccurately – but unless we learn to notice them they can have powerful yet invisible effects upon our moods and our lives.
The negative effects of automatic negative thinking include:
- Depleting beneficial brain chemicals like the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine
- Slowing the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein required for new brain cell formation
- Shrinking the size of your brain but enlarging your brain’s fear center, the amygdala
- Increasing your risk of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases
- Accelerating the brain’s aging process
I hear you, it might feel like worrying and negative thinking are keeping you safe or helping you problem-solve, but what they are really doing is blindsiding you, distorting your perception of reality, and holding you captive in a vicious cycle of stress, unmet expectations, disappointments, and misery.
It is certainly normal to have automatic thoughts, and some of them may even be accurate once in a while. However, when you are attending to every negative thought in your head and get sucked into always believing them, you are destined to feel stressed out, anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed.
Don’t believe everything you think! Remember, mental traps are sneaky ways your mind convinces you of something that isn’t really true, nor helpful, nor kind.
Your brain fools you into thinking that your negative thoughts are accurate and logical, but, in reality, they serve only to reinforce negative thinking and emotions. Scientists at Cornell University found that, firstly 85% of what we worry about never happens. Secondly with the 15% of the worries that did happen, 79% of the subjects discovered that either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or that the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning. The conclusion is that 97% of our worries are baseless and result from an unfounded pessimistic perception. One of the founders of cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck, concluded that Automatic Negative Thoughts, aka ANTs sabotage our best self, and lead to a vicious circle of misery: creating a general mindset that is variously unhappy or anxious or angry (take your pick) and which is (therefore) all the more likely to generate more and more negative thoughts, creating a snowball effect. We get stuck in the same old neural pathways, having the same negative thoughts again and again, thus prolonging our misery and suffering.
The first step to significantly improve your mood and quality of life is to become aware of the mental traps you fall into and the automatic negative thoughts that are playing in your head.
Discover the Mind Traps that are the Root Cause of your Unhappiness and Relationship Problems
So, as we have discovered so far, thinking is a very important and powerful tool, but it is far from perfect. Sometimes certain old patterns can intrude into the present and hijack our thinking, distorting our perceptions of reality. Even obviously untrue thoughts can sometimes seem very convincing when we get hooked by them and become part of the story playing in our heads.
Look through the list of mental traps below and notice: Do you ever get hooked by any of these? Do you have your favorites you tend to default to? The first step in working with mental traps is to notice them for what they are.
It is often easy to see other people engaging in these patterns, or even to laugh at how absurd they sound when you read them, but they can be hard to notice when you are caught up in them. As you continue reading, take a few minutes to consider each one of these thinking patterns to see if you can recognize how they might show up in your own thinking at times. If any of these apply to you, make notes to yourself so you can get better at seeing the signs of when you are being hooked by your mind.
All or Nothing Thinking
This mental trap involves thinking and acting in extremes. Our brains often looks at things in absolutes and categorizes things as right or wrong, good or bad, all or nothing, black or white. However, in reality, there are many shades of gray. There are variations in good and bad in every person, thing, and situation, and these can also change with time.
Some of the examples of the Automatic Negative Thoughts that accompany this mental trap: "I'm either perfect, or I'm a total failure", " If I don't complete one task on my to-do list, the whole day was unproductive", "My life is either going perfectly, or it's a total disaster", " If I fail at something, I'm a failure", "Either I do it right, or not at all"
Mental Filtering ( Tunnel vision)
Mental filtering trap involves only picking out a negative detail in any situation and dwelling on it exclusively, thereby perceiving the whole situation as negative. Dr. David Burns introduces the metaphor of a pair of eyeglasses with special lenses that filter out anything positive: no positive information is allowed through the filter and so you naturally draw the the conclusion that everything is negative.
Examples: You receive many positive comments about your presentation, but one of the co-workers says something mildly critical. And you obsess about one negative comment for hours/days and ignore the positive feedback.
Discounting the positives
A form of All or Nothing thinking. This mental trap includes discounting the good things that happened or you have done for some reason or the other, thus transforming neutral or even positive experience into negative one. Instead of filtering out the positive when it occurs, it is dismissed as a fluke or argued against. So the "good things" don't count because "it was an easy task", "anyone could have done this", "it was simply a luck". And bad things are deeply internalized as personal flaws.
Examples: "They didn't mean to give me a compliment, they were just trying to be nice". " I just got lucky to get this promotion". "Yes I've got a raise, but it wasn't very big and I'm still not good at my job".
Magnification and Minimization
Magnification and minimization are described by psychiatrist David Burns as the ‘binocular trick’ because of the way that errors, fears, or imperfections are exaggerated while strengths and achievements are made to seem small and unimportant. This mental trap is an involuntary habit “the problem isn’t you – it’s the crazy lenses you’re wearing!
Examples: "Getting a PHD doesn't mean I'm smart. But getting criticism from by boss proves how inadequate I am". or Forgetting all the hard work you did to raise a family and the skills it took you to survive countless crises, you think, “I’m such a loser for not being better at using computers".
This mental trap involves noticing one specific thing, situation, or quality, and automatically believing that it applies much more broadly. Overgeneralizing can lead to overly negative thoughts about yourself and your environment based on only one or two experiences. Using words like “always,” “never,” and “every” is the hallmark of the ANT that will be scrolling in you mind if you fall victim to Overgeneralizing mental trap. Nothing goes well all the time, but it doesn’t mean everything will go badly all the time.
Some of the examples of the Automatic Negative Thoughts that accompany this mental trap: “I’m never going to lose weight,” “You’re always late,” "I'm a total loser", “Everyone understands this but me", “I’ve completely failed”, or “Everyone else is happy, but me”, "I just can’t do anything right", "I'll be lonely and miserable all my life"
This mental trap involves tendencies that are basically extreme forms of overgeneralization, in which we assign judgments of value to ourselves or to others based on one instance or experience. Are you constantly using such labels like fat, fool, failure, jerk, lazy, stupid, or loser? If you've answered, yes - than STOP IT! Labeling is irrational because you are not the same as what you do. Labels are simply useless abstractions that lead to anger, anxiety, frustration and low self-esteem. And when applied to others, labels make you feel like the problem is with that person's character instead of their thinking or specific behavior, thus making you feel hostile and hopeless about making things better.
Examples: Instead of saying "I made a mistake", you attach a negative label to yourself " I'm a loser" or "I'm a failure". Or someone does something that rubs you a wrong way and you automatically assign a label " What a jerk" or " What a S.O.B."
This mental trap involves either making a catastrophe over current or looking into the future and anticipating worst case scenarios - "an irrationally negative forecast of future events". This mental trap involves extensive and irrational worry over what might happen in the future combined with the assumption that we won't be able to cope & it would be a complete disaster. In turn causing anxiety and failure to take reasonable and important risks. Sometime individuals catastrophize as a way of protecting themselves, believing that by only expecting the absolute worst, they will be less disappointed if something goes wrong. In reality, catastrophizing limits your opportunities in life, work, and relationships. Furthermore, it creates self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, disappointment, and underachievement.
Some of the examples that accompany this mental trap may include: You experience turbulence on a plane and believe it's a sign of imminent crash. As a salesperson, you lost one sale and now believe you're a total failure, you will get fired, and end up being homeless. You make one mistake on a report, and now believe that you won't be able to finish it or if you do it will be full of mistakes and you'll get fired. You decline an invitation to go on a date, because you believe the other person may find you boring or not attractive, and as a result you will be single and lonely your whole life. You see a spot on your face and automatically assume it has to be a skin cancer.
Jumping to Conclusions ( Mind reading & fortune telling traps)
This mental trap involves a process of “arbitrarily jumping to a negative conclusion that is not justified by the facts”. With the ‘mind reading’ we assume that we know what other person is thinking, and more often than not believe that people are thinking negatively about us. With the ‘fortune telling’ we imagine and predict that bad things are going to happen to us. In neither case are the conclusions that we draw supported by the evidence.
Examples: You were passed for a promotion and you tell yourself "my boss thinks that I'm not a management material and a total loser". You say high to a neighbor at the store, but they don't reply back and you conclude: "They are ignoring me because they think they are so much better than me". Or perhaps your partner had a rough day at work and is in a bad mood one evening and you're telling yourself: "He is are angry with me. What did I do wrong?". Other automatic thoughts may sound like: "I'm not going to get this job, I just know", "I would apologize, but now it's too late to change anything", "I'm convinced that this meeting will be awful", "My children will be unhappy if they don't get into the right school".
The emotional reasoning mental trap is where emotions are taken as evidence of truth. This is actually backwards because your feelings are a product of your thoughts and beliefs, and invalid because if thoughts are biased then emotions experienced as result don’t correspond to the world as it is. You may be in a situation where you feel stupid, for example. It’s easy for that feeling to morph into the thought that you are stupid, though this is not true. Emotional reasoning refers to the acceptance of one’s emotions as fact. It can be described as “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Just because we feel something doesn’t mean it is true! for example,
Examples: I'm terrified about going on an airplane, therefore it must be very dangerous to fly". "I feel anxious, this means something bad will happen", "I feel so inferior, this means I'm a worthless person", "I feel angry, that definitely means I'm being treated unfairly". "I feel jealous, therefore my partner has feelings for someone else and cheating on me".
When engaging in this type of thinking, an individual tends to take things personally. He or she may attribute things that other people do as the result of his or her own actions or behaviors. This type of thinking also causes a person to blame himself or herself for external circumstances outside the person’s control.
Examples: You feel like you are to blame when someone else does not have a good time when they are with you. You feel like you're being intentionally excluded from the group when you see other members interacting without you. Assuming that colleagues are joking about you, when you see them talking and laughing in the hallway when you were passing by.
This is the opposite of personalization. Instead of seeing everything as your fault, all blame is put on someone or something else. Don’t blame others for your own problems. Realize that you are responsible for your own actions, thoughts, and attitudes.
Examples: "You make me feel bad about myself". "It's your fault that I'm so angry". 'The reason my marriage is so terrible is because my spouse is totally unreasonable"
Another particularly damaging mental trap is the tendency to make “Should” statements. Should statements are statements that you make to yourself about what you “should” do or what you “must” do. They can also be applied to others, imposing a set of expectations that will likely not be met. Words such as “should” and “must” cause endless problems in human thinking. Rigid rules for how the world should operate and for how people (including yourself) should think, feel, and behave.
Example: When we hang on too tightly to our “Should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When we cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by their failure to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment. Let's be honest here, are you Shoulding all over yourself and others and wonder why your life is so damn difficult?
In this type of mental trap, once you have an idea in your head, you pay attention to things that support your idea and ignore any disconfirming evidence.
Example: If you have been cheated on in the past, you might be suspicious of your current partner. If he or she becomes less affectionate with you, you suspect they are giving their affections to someone else. If he or she becomes more affectionate, you suspect they has been stimulated by someone else. If they act the same, you suspect they are hiding the fact that they are with someone else. In a sad, self-fulfilling prophecy, your paranoia actually drives a wedge in the relationship, making it more likely that your partner will want to find someone else.
This mental trap attributes all positive events the personal character while seeing any negative events as outside of personal control. This pattern of thinking may cause a person to refuse to admit mistakes or flaws and to live in a distorted reality where they can do no wrong and there is always an excuse of why they did what they did. While they judge themselves by their intentions, they judge other people by their actions.
Example: " I can't believe he was late to our meeting, what a disrespectful jerk!" vs " I meant to be on time to our meeting, but I got caught in a traffic jam and end up being late. It wasn't my fault."
always being right
This mental trap causes a person to internalize their opinions as facts and fails to consider the feelings of the other person in a debate or discussion. Perfectionists and those struggling with Imposter Syndrome will recognize this mental trap – it is the belief that we must always be right. For those falling victim to this mental trap, the idea that they could be wrong is absolutely unacceptable, and they will fight to the metaphorical death to prove that they are right.
FALLACY OF CHANGE
This mental trap assumes that other people must change their behavior in order for us to be happy. This way of thinking is quiet selfish because it insists, for example, that other people change their schedule to accommodate yours or that your partner shouldn’t wear his or her favorite t-shirt because you don’t like it. Once trapped in the Fallacy of change we are expecting others to change if we pressure or encourage them enough. This mental trap is usually accompanied by a belief that our happiness and success rests on other people, leading us to believe that forcing those around us to change is the only way to get what we want.
Heaven’ s reward fallacy
This mental trap manifests as a belief that one’s struggles, one’s suffering, and one’s hard work will result in a just reward. In reality, sometimes no matter how hard we work or how much we sacrifice, we will not achieve what we hope to achieve. So, to think otherwise is a potentially damaging pattern of thought that can result in disappointment, frustration, anger, and even depression when the awaited reward does not materialize.
FALLACY OF FAIRNESS
This mental trap assumes that things have to be measured based on fairness and equality, when in reality things often don’t always work that way. While we would all probably prefer to operate in a world that is fair, the assumption of an inherently fair world is not based in reality and can foster negative feelings when we are faced with proof of life’s unfairness.
Example: A person who judges every experience by its perceived fairness has fallen into this mental trap, and will likely feel anger, resentment, and hopelessness when they inevitably encounter a situation that is not fair.
This mental trap manifests as one of two beliefs: (1) that we have no control over our lives and are helpless victims of fate, or (2) that we are in complete control of ourselves and our surroundings, giving us responsibility for the feelings of those around us.
Both beliefs are damaging, and both are equally inaccurate. No one is in complete control of what happens to them, and no one has absolutely no control over their situation. Even in extreme situations where an individual seemingly has no choice in what they do or where they go, they still have a certain amount of control over how they approach their situation mentally.
Example: Someone who sees things as internally controlled may put himself or herself at fault for events that are truly out of the person’s control, such as another person’s happiness or behavior. A person who sees things as externally controlled might blame his or her boss for poor work performance.
The Hardest Prison to Escape From Is The Mind.
The Hardest - Yes! The Impossible - No!
Now that you have discovered that:
- mental traps are unconscious habitual patterns that distort your perception of reality
- mental traps negatively impact your individual levels of happiness and content
- mental traps cause resentment, disagreements, and failed expectations in your relationships
- your brain is wired for survival, not to make you happy
- your brain will likely fool you if left unattended and unsupervised
- your happiness lies in escaping the prison of mind
It's time to re-claim your power and get back in the driver seat of your life! And, the first step on this journey is to gain self-awareness and learn to recognize when your brain fools you and what automatic negative thoughts trigger a cascade of unpleasant emotions, such as anger, frustration, shame, anxiety, disappointment or sadness.
To help you gain better awareness around the mental traps you tend to fall victim to, download this free Mental Traps Monitoring worksheet and keep track of you automatic negative thinking patterns for a week or two. In this next article, I will share 4 Powerful Science-Backed Strategies to Master your Mind, escape the prison of mental traps, put your negative thinking at bay, re-claim your power & get back in the driver seat of your life.