“Our life is what our thoughts make it” - Marcus Aurelius
Cognitions are “thoughts that occur in one’s stream of consciousness” (Holli and Beto, 2018) and are sometimes referred to as “automatic thoughts” as they run through the mind subconsciously. Due to the automatic nature of these thoughts, we are often unaware of them, BUT they can create very powerful feelings. They can be positive, negative or neutral and we often believe them to be true. Since negative thoughts or “cognitive distortions” can inhibit behaviour change, it's important we become aware of them and understand how we can change them.
Experts have identified 12 types of cognitive distortions. Think about yourself while reading the following and whether you rarely, sometimes or often experience any of these thoughts.
All or nothing thinking - Thinking about yourself or experiences as either black or white
Example - I ate this piece of cake when I shouldn’t have, I’m a failure
Overgeneralization - One single negative event is generalised to apply to other situations
Example - I didn’t lose weight this week, I’ll never be able to lose weight
Mental Filter - One negative detail causes the whole situation to be perceived as negative
Example - If I don’t drink when I go to the party or out to dinner, it won’t be any fun
Discounting the Positive
Example - I ate the foods that were in line with my goals today, but I won’t be able to do it tomorrow
Jumping to Conclusions - Assuming the worst
Example - I can’t make these lifestyle changes and stick to them long term
Magnification or Minimization
Example - I only lost a tiny bit of weight this week
Emotional Reasoning - Negative feelings are considered true
Example - I feel inadequate, so I must be
Should Statements - Thoughts you have when trying to motivate yourself
Example - I should eat more vegetables and I shouldn’t eat chips
Labelling and Mislabelling - Incorrectly labelling yourself
Example - I’m a failure
Personalization - Seeing yourself as the cause of a negative event
Example - What happened was my fault, because I am inadequate
Tunnel Vision - Seeing only the negative in situations
Example - Making a single mistake and thinking ‘I can’t do anything right’
Mind Reading - Thinking you know what others are thinking, often about you
Example - She thinks I’m lazy and that I need to lose weight
Did you identify with any of the above distortions? These thoughts can be distressing, demotivating and upsetting and often make you want to give up. That’s why it’s necessary to RECOGNIZE them, EXPLORE them and then work to CHANGE them. A good way to do this is to track your negative thoughts. Keep a journal or diary and record when, where and what you think triggered them. Once you have written these down, try to categorise them into one of the above 12 types of distortions and then try to come up with some coping thoughts.
Some examples of coping thoughts include:
- Eating this piece of cake does NOT make me a failure. It’s important to eat foods I enjoy - everything in moderation!
- That person has their own life and their own concerns or problems just like me, it's very unlikely they are caught up on judging me or thinking negative things about me
- I didn’t make it to the gym as often as I wanted to this week, but I have in previous weeks, I should be very proud of that
- I went to the gym today and it made me feel really good, I need to remember that and let it motivate me to go again
Remember, when you think positively, you will feel more positive and this will influence your behaviour in a positive way!
- Keep a written log of negative thoughts in your diary or phone
- Recognise that they are likely a distortion of reality.
- Create a list of your own coping thoughts for each negative thought
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