How do thoughts affect emotions?
If you are struggling with anxiety and depression in midlife, it can be helpful to consider how the way you are thinking may be affecting your emotional state. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy that focuses on the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. CBT aims to help individuals identify and modify unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaviour to improve their emotional well-being and address specific psychological issues.
Therapy aims to enable people to gain insight and increase self awareness of their thoughts and beliefs and recognise how these thoughts influence their emotions and behaviours. Strategies can then be developed which can be used to change negative or maladaptive patterns of thinking.
Common cognitive thinking errors, also known as cognitive distortions or cognitive biases, are patterns of thinking that can lead to inaccurate perceptions, negative emotions, and flawed decision-making. Common errors include:
All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing things in black and white, without considering shades of grey or acknowledging nuance. It involves thinking in extremes and failing to recognize the middle ground or potential alternatives, such as ‘This is my last chance’ or ‘I will always be unhappy’.
Overgeneralisation: These types of thoughts, such as ‘Everyone’s happier than me’ Draw broad conclusions or make sweeping generalizations based on limited evidence or single occurrences. It involves assuming that a negative event or experience will always happen in similar situations.
Catastrophising: Perhaps one of the most common thinking errors within the thought process of people suffering from anxiety or depression is the tendency to catastrophise. Thoughts such as ‘I will never be happy’ or ‘That was my only chance’ magnify or exaggerate the importance or consequences of an event, or dwell on worst-case scenarios, often leading to increased distress.
Emotional reasoning: This error results in people believing that their emotions reflect reality or the truth, such as ‘I feel bad so I must be a bad person’. It involves using feelings as evidence for the validity of a belief, disregarding objective facts or evidence.
Personalisation: These types of thoughts, such as ‘He looks angry it must be because of something I’ve done’ make things personal or attribute external events to oneself without sufficient evidence. It involves assuming that others’ actions or situations are a direct reflection of your worth or intentions.
Mental filtering: This involves focusing exclusively on negative aspects of life, people, work etc while ignoring positive aspects or evidence to the contrary. It involves selectively attending to and remembering information that confirms negative beliefs or biases.
Discounting the positive: Again, another popular error made by people which involves dismissing or devaluing positive experiences, achievements, or feedback. It involves minimising or disregarding positive information, often leading to a negative self-perception.
Mind reading: A tricky cognitive thinking pattern which never seems to lead anywhere positive. This error assumes you know what others are thinking (usually negatively about you) or their motivations without concrete evidence. It involves attributing intentions, beliefs, or feelings to others based on limited information or personal biases. ‘I bet they think I’m a loser’.
Fortune-telling: Similar to the above, this error predicts negative outcomes or assumes you know the future, often without sufficient evidence or consideration of alternative possibilities. It involves making negative predictions without considering other potential outcomes. ‘This will never work out for me’.
Should statements: These are my pet hates because they impose rigid expectations or rules on yourself or others. It involves using “should,” “must,” or “ought to” statements that create a sense of guilt, obligation, or unrealistic standards. Thoughts such as ‘I should have my life worked out by now’ are a quick easy way to make yourself more anxious when you are struggling in midlife.
It’s important to note that these cognitive thinking errors are common, and most people experience them to some extent. As you become aware of these (and your own) patterns of thinking, you can begin to challenge and reframe them, promoting more accurate perceptions, positive emotions, and better decision-making. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques and practices talked about in my book can be helpful in addressing and modifying these cognitive distortions.
Written by Dr Julie Hannan.