Browsing the archives for the cognition tag.
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Tools for Feeling Better, Part I

Handling negative emotions

I’ve mentioned in some recent articles that I’m doing my best to remember and make good use of whatever tools I have to make good choices. Some of the most useful tools of this kind are for getting past negative emotions: anger, depression, frustration, anxiety, avoidance, despair, and so on.

Here are five of the best tools I know of for handling bad states of mind. I’ll post another article or two in the near future with more.

Idea repair: Negative emotions that keep going even when no new bad things are happening are usually maintained by specific kinds of thoughts (as talked about, for instance, in Jenefer Robinson’s book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art). Idea repair, called “cognitive restructuring” in psychology circles, is the process of detecting flawed thoughts and reframing them so that they become constructive and stop causing pain.

Mindfulness: A key ingredient in sorting out negative emotions and one of the requirements for idea repair and other positive processes, mindfulness is simply being aware of what’s going on both around and inside us. We can’t be mindful all the time, but there are certainly situations in which we become more sane, happy, focused, and relaxed just by using this one idea.

Meditation: Although some people meditate for spiritual reasons, others do it just for the immediate personal payoff in serenity, self-awareness, and clarity. It’s not difficult to get started.

Understanding schemas: Mental schemas are flawed patterns of thinking and behavior that are usually learned when we are young but stick with us into adulthood, often causing trouble for us on a daily basis. There are a variety of them, including, for example, Abandonment, Mistrust, and Emotional deprivation. If we find any schemas in ourselves, we can learn to understand and overcome those schemas, clearing away a lot of emotional drag and clutter in the process.

Emotional antidotes: Buddhist inquiry into human emotion, which is a time-honored and conscientious tradition, has come up with some kinds of emotional experiences that can be used to reverse negative emotions. I explain something of how this works in my article “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions.”

For more tools, see the follow-up articles: Part II and Part III.

Photo by Michael Flick

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Examples of Broken Ideas (Cognitive Distortions)

Handling negative emotions

A broken idea (called a “cognitive distortion” in the psychological literature) is a thought that creates problems because it’s flawed.

Some examples of broken ideas: “You always interrupt me!” (Always? Every single time?) “People think I look stupid when I dance.” (Everyone does? You can read their minds?) “I look like a mess for this interview! This is a disaster!” (As bad as the Hindenberg or Hurricane Katrina? It’s a disaster and not just an inconvenience?).

Broken ideas tend to play in loops in our minds, and this ongoing commentary often has the effect of causing trouble: disrupting work, encouraging us to act badly, or just making us miserable. I talk elsewhere on the site about how to detect broken ideas and how to repair them and provide an introduction to broken ideas, but a correspondent recently made the very good suggestion of posting examples of each type.

All-or-nothing thinking:
Looking at things as though they’re completely black or white, with no room for neutral or contrary characteristics.
“This job is the worst job I could possibly have. I hate it.”

Taking a few examples and assuming that they describe an absolute pattern.
“My last two relationships ended badly: I must be completely incompetent at love.”

Mental filter:
Ignoring important facts to come up with a faulty conclusion.
“Mom and Dad always paid attention to you and never to me.”

Disqualifying the positive:
Ignoring anything that might get in the way of a negative judgment.
“It doesn’t matter that my boss complimented my work: since I didn’t get the promotion, I’m obviously a failure.”

Fortune telling:
Making assumptions about what will happen in the future.
“All this studying won’t help, and I’ll fail the test.”

Mind reading:
Making assumptions about what other people are thinking.
“Everybody in the audience must think I’m a complete idiot up here.”

Magnification or minimization:
Exaggerating or understating anything about a situation.
“I have to move? This is awful! This will ruin everything I have set up in my life!”

Emotional reasoning:
Assuming that something’s true because it feels like it’s true.
“I know I planned the event carefully, but I know something’s going to go wrong.”

Should statements:
Getting upset because one doesn’t have control or governance over other people’s actions, random events, or basic facts of existence.
“That jerk shouldn’t be driving so slowly in the left lane!”
“I should be able to eat cookies whenever I want to! It’s not fair that my coworkers can do that and not get fat!”

Describing something in a way that prevents it from being clearly seen and often makes it seem much worse than it is.
“I’m a coward and loser, and nothing’s going to change that.”

Assuming that a situation or event says something about oneself personally when it doesn’t.
“I didn’t win this contest–they must think I’m a terrible writer.”

Photo by 1Sock

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Compulsively Checking E-mail and Going to Bed Late: Where Unintentional Habits Come From


You may be in charge of how often you check your e-mail: it may be that you can stay away from it for days at a time, that you don’t check it on vacation, and that if you’re at a computer doing something else, you never look at it every five minutes just to see whether something new has shown up. Many of us, however, are in a different boat–if not with e-mail, then regularly going to bed later than intended (even if the last wakeful hour of the day was spent just marking time), or with watching the news every night, or with having a cup of tea every afternoon at four (I’m not looking at you, The United Kingdom; I’m just saying).

Whether we think of these kinds of behaviors as compulsions, bad habits, or routine, they have a few things in common: they seem to appear by themselves without our ever choosing them; they are often counter-productive (well, maybe not the tea); and they’re not easy to get rid of.

But these habits aren’t such a mystery, because we acquire habits in the same way whether they help us or hurt us, whether they’re desired or accidental: we repeat a behavior over and over for a reason until we naturally start doing it automatically even when we don’t have a reason.

Constantly checking e-mail is a good example: this kind of habit can easily develop when there’s important information coming through e-mail that you’re eager to see. I know that every time I’ve had a writing success (when I won the Writers of the Future contest, when my book Talk the Talk sold, etc.) or especially was hoping for a writing success (waiting for a response on a short story, waiting to hear back from a publisher about a novel) I’ve tended to check my e-mail over and over on the off chance that some time in the last five minutes, the hoped-for news had come: the book had sold, the contest was won, the agent is excited about working with me. And having a number of kinds of things like that over the years, I did this repeated checking long enough, often enough, and consistently enough that now for me, checking my e-mail is a little bit like eating: if I go too long without doing it, I start feeling antsy.

The exact same process applies to staying up late at night, or playing video games when you arrive home from work or school, or watching the news every evening regardless of whether it’s really making your life better to do so: any period where you have a powerful reason to do the thing over and over can birth a long-term habit that doesn’t need a reason. The same steps even apply to addiction in some ways, although there are also physiological factors when we’re talking about substance abuse.

Some of these (non-substance abuse) habits are neutral or helpful, others not so much. If you want to ditch a habit you never meant to pick up in the first place, the process is simple in a sense, though it takes attention, effort, and thought: you interrupt the repeated behavior long enough to weaken the habit. In order to do this, it’s helpful to find some non-habit-forming or constructive alternative, because it’s difficult not to do something you’re used to, but much easier to do something else–even if you’re not used to the something else. This is why people who are trying to quit cigarettes chew gum and why people who are trying to quit alcohol drink coffee at AA meetings.

As to whether constantly checking e-mail is one of the bad habits or one of the neutral ones–well, I would answer that, but I have to go check my e-mail.

Photo by CarbonNYC

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