Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.
Thinking is a three-step process.
First, sensations and stimuli reach the brain from our body’s sense organs.
A sensation arises in our body or mind. This could be anything; a touch, a vibration, a smell, or even a thought. The sensation has to reach sufficient intensity, or involve a sense of change or danger, before it comes to our conscious awareness.
For instance, the brain may not react to only a few sensory neurons sending messages, but once the frequency of the input reaches a threshold then the sensation will reach consciousness. The brain does not bring every sensation to conscious awareness unless something changes, change being indicative of danger.
When a rapid response is necessary to prevent the body being harmed, there are well-developed reflexes that act without waiting for the sensation to reach awareness – such as pulling our finger off a hot surface before it can be too badly burnt.
This change in awareness can be seen when we get dressed. We tend to be aware of our trousers just after we have put them on, but usually the sensation of wearing them has been filtered out by the time we get out of the bedroom. It is only later, when it is windy and rainy and our wet trouser leg gets blown against our leg, that we again become aware of their existence. A change may need a response, but it is not helpful to be aware of our trousers all the time as it would use up too much of our available mental bandwidth.
The brain has to filter noise from information.
This filtering process is one of the ways that the brain prevents the conscious mind from becoming overloaded with information, and seizing up. Some recent estimates suggest that the human brain can handle about 130 kB of information per second. This contains a lot of information, but is easy to exceed. It takes about 40kB when we hold a conversation, and even more if we text or use a phone. One of the reasons that doing anything else while driving is so dangerous.
Second, we become aware of this sensation and register its presence.
Once we have become aware of the sensation we can then give it a name; singing, cinnamon, rain, or whatever else it is. The sensation or mental experience is just what it is, nothing added and nothing taken away. Ticklish sensation in my leg. Pain in my head. Hungry, thirsty etc.
Third, we start to add a commentary.
This is where things can start to go wrong. We start to add an opinion about what we are experiencing.
- “Oh bother, its raining”.
- “Why does it always rain when I want to have a picnic?”.
- ” Oh good, its raining so I won’t have to go and pay cricket today.”
We add an editorial commentary to the basic facts. This usually involves giving an emotional label and meaning to what we perceive. These labels are often either/or in nature.
- This is good, that is bad.
- I like this, I hate that.
Suddenly, small events of no real significance can start to take on all the qualities of a life or death drama. Our happiness has gone, and our mind is in turmoil. “I didn’t get a like on FaceBook”, can rapidly become a trigger for self harm or even a suicide attempt, in an person whose life experiences have left them vulnerable to rejection. It is this tendency to editorialise that creates our view of the world, and not surprisingly can lead us astray. Until we start this process of thinking about our thinking,
- Thoughts are just thoughts.
- Rain is just rain.
- The present moment is just the present moment.
Once we begin to worry about the past, or to fret about the future, we are heading for trouble. We end up in a disturbed state of mind, with our tranquility destroyed; all because the editorial style of thinking that we have learnt to use, is based on faulty logic. Errors in the thinking process that lead us to the wrong conclusions.These errors originate because we start the process from the wrong place, jumping to dramatic conclusions about events, and their personal meaning. A circular, and quite circuitous process comes into play.
Faulty thinking about events that are in the past, or have yet to happen in the future, can lead to anxiety and depression. In their turn, these mental states of anxiety and depression, can exacerbate the dodgy logic that brought them out in the first place. This results in our making everything worse in our imagination, and then we project this version of events on to our interactions with the world.
It is not events that cause us suffering, but what we make of those events.
We all use unhelpful thinking styles from time to time, however, it is when they become our habitual ways of processing our thoughts, that we really start to get in trouble. Many of the modern approaches to helping people with mental health problems, for which there is scientific evidence, focus on these processes of faulty thinking. Therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, and other similar approaches, are used in an attempt to help us become aware of this process as it is happening. To help us recognise links that we create between events, out interpretations of these events, and our mental state. Once we start to develop this awareness of our thinking processes, we can choose to modify our responses. Responses that are better connected to what is happening in the here and now, and not to events that happened in our past, or that we fear will happen in our futures.
The commonest cognitive errors are:
Magnification and minimalisation.
We notice our faults and make them all encompassing, our good points are shrugged off as it they are of no consequence, and are certainly nothing to do with us. At the same time we do the reverse for other people, their faults get minimised and their good points exaggerated
Here we blow everything out of proportion. Small set backs become major traumas. We see everything in terms of dreadfullness and not being able to cope.
Some event from our past becomes the yardstick by which we judge our performance in the present. I got a C in maths means I am stupid and can never succeed at anything.
Black and white thinking.
There may be fifty shades of grey in the book , but when we use this kind of thinking only the extremes exist. All or nothing, no gradations in between. “My parents won’t let me go to the party”, becomes “they never let me do anything”. One person does not say hello at a party, becomes everybody hates me.
This is not just an individual way of thinking, but also seems to affect whole groups in their relationships to the rest of the world. “I am stupid”, “He is lazy”, along with “All muslims are terrorists”, and other equally absurd ideas that become common parlance very quickly.
Jumping to conclusions.
We are quick to decide what other people are saying, feeling, or thinking. We become mind readers and start making predictions about the future. We don’t ask someone out as we assume that they will say no. If we don’t smoke dope no-one else will ever speak to us again. We don’t apply for a great job as we would never get it
Severely depressed people sometimes feel that they are to blame for all the bad things that happen in the world. One young woman I saw recently was convinced that she was responsible for a hurricane that did a lot of damage. We all do this to a some degree, and no doubt all have serial apologisers among our friends.
We accept the blame for the things that go wrong in life even when they are not our responsibility. Our team loses a match, this is our fault for not scoring an easy goal – this does not explain the score line of 7 to 0. Our partner runs off with someone else because we are not a good enough friend, not that they are a jerk.
This is the cognitive equivalent of tunnel vision. we focus down on one aspect of a situation and ignore the rest. The one person who does not say hello ruins our evening, rather than the thirty who were glad to see us meaning that we can have a good time.
Shoulds, oughts, and musts.
We all pick up these as we grow up. Should say thankyou, please etc. Big boys don’t cry. Girls wear pink. Many times we find ourselves acting against our better interests because we believe one of these. It is as if our stern grandmother was standing behind us, wagging her finger, and looking on with cold disapproval if we don’t do something. We stay friends with someone who is dragging us down because that is what a nice person ought to do.
When we use this thinking style we make decisions, or interpret situations based on what we feel. We make decisions without any real evidence. We will have a horrible time because we think we will.
All of these thinking styles are normal to some extent. When we are having a bad day, or things get on top of us, then we may think like this for a short while. It is when these thinking styles become our standard operating procedure that they cause problems.
Many depressed or anxious people display these styles much of the time. Such thinking leads to unhelpful self talk – we are unlikely to succeed if we are constantly telling ourselves that we cannot do something, because we are not that sort of person
When we notice ourselves using this kind of thinking it is helpful to take a few deep, slow breaths. To take a moment to notice what we are doing, and then to challenge our thoughts. Each time we can do this will make it slightly easier to do it the next time. A gradual process can develop where we come to recognise when our thinking is contributing to our problems, and we can then challenge the evidence and our beliefs to change how we think and how we feel.
It is this apparent effectiveness of clear awareness that has lead to mindfulness techniques being added to many therapies. If our thinking styles can become more accessible to our conscious mind, then we have the opportunity to change.
I would recommend anyone to take up some form of regular mindfulness practice. The benefits for both our mental and physical health are clear.