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Unhelpful Cognitions (thoughts) and DistortionsUnhelpful Cognitions (thoughts) and Distortions

Unhelpful Cognitions

Mental Filter: This thinking style involves a “filtering in” and “filtering out” process – a sort of “tunnel vision”, focusing on only one part of a situation and ignoring the rest. Usually this means looking at the negative parts of a situation and forgetting the positive parts, and the whole picture is coloured by what may be a single negative detail.

Jumping to Conclusions: We jump to conclusions when we assume that we know what someone else is thinking (mind reading) and when we make predictions about what is going to happen in the future (predictive thinking).

Mind reading: Is a habitual thinking pattern characterized by expecting others to know what you’re thinking without having to tell them or expecting to know what others are thinking without them telling you. This is very common, and most people can identify. Oftentimes, when we are telling someone a story about an interaction, we’ve had with someone else, we will make mind reading assumptions without actually having fact or evidence e.g., “They haven’t phoned me in two weeks so they must be angry with me for cancelling on them last week.”

Personalisation: This involves blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong or could go wrong, even when you may only be partly responsible or not responsible at all. You might be taking 100% responsibility for the occurrence of external events. It can also involve blaming someone else for something for which they have no responsibility. This can often occur when setting a boundary with someone and you take responsibility for their guilt or anger.

Catastrophising: Catastrophising occurs when we “blow things out of proportion” and we view the situation as terrible, awful, dreadful, and horrible, even though the reality is that the problem itself may be quite small.

Black & White Thinking: Also known as splitting, dichotomous thinking, and all-or-nothing thinking, involves seeing only one side or the other (the positives or the negatives, for example). You are either wrong or right, good or bad and so on. There are no in-betweens or shades of grey.

Should-ing and Must-ing: Sometimes by saying “I should…” or “I must…” you can put unreasonable demands or pressure on yourself and others. Although these statements are not always unhelpful (e.g., “I should not get drunk and drive home”), they can sometimes create unrealistic expectations.

Should-ing and must-ing can be a psychological distortion because it can “deny reality” e.g., I shouldn’t have had so much to drink last night. This is helpful in the sense that it communicates to us that we have exceeded our boundaries, however, saying “shouldn’t” about a past situation can be futile because it cannot be changed.

Overgeneralisation: When we overgeneralise, we take one instance in the past or present, and impose it on all current or future situations. If we say, “You always…” or “Everyone…”, or “I never…” then we are probably overgeneralising.

Labelling: We label ourselves and others when we make global statements based on behaviour in specific situations. We might use this label even though there are many more examples that are not consistent with that label. Labelling is a cognitive distortion whereby we take one characteristic of a person/group/situation and apply it to the whole person/group/situation. Example: “Because I failed a test, I am a failure” or “Because she is frequently late to work, she is irresponsible”.

Emotional Reasoning: This thinking style involves basing your view of situations or yourself on the way you are feeling. For example, the only evidence that something bad is going to happen is that you feel like something bad is going to happen. Emotions and feelings are real however they are not necessarily indicative of objective truth or fact.

Magnification and Minimisation: In this thinking style, you magnify the positive attributes of other people and minimise your own positive attributes. Also known as the binocular effect on thinking. Often it means that you enlarge (magnify) the positive attributes of other people and shrink (minimise) your own attributes, just like looking at the world through either end of the same pair of binoculars.

(CCI, 2008)

Understanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destructionUnderstanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destruction

What is meant by self-harm?

Self-harm is any behaviour that involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself without the intention to end your life. Self-harm can include behaviours such as cutting, burning or hitting oneself, binge-eating or starvation, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations. It can also involve abuse of drugs or alcohol, including overdosing on prescription medications. Self-harm is usually a response to distress, whether it be from mental illness, trauma, or psychological pain. Some people find that the physical pain of self-harm helps provide temporary relief from emotional pain (extract from Self harm (lifeline.org.au)).

People who engage in self-harm will profess that they have no intention of dying and that their self-harming behaviour is a coping strategy, however, there are incidents of accidental suicide. The act of self-harm can develop into an obsessive-compulsion experience which can be very difficult to stop, like addiction, without outside intervention. This can result in feelings of hopelessness and possible suicidal thinking. Like building a tolerance to a drug, when self-injury does not relieve the tension or help control negative thoughts and feelings, the person may injure themselves more severely or may start to believe they can no longer control their pain and may consider suicide.

The following extract by Tracy Alderman Ph.D explains the physiological response to physical pain:

“Physiologically, endorphins are released when we are injured or stressed. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that act similarly to morphine and reduce the amount of pain we experience when we are hurt. Joggers often report experiencing a “runners high” when reaching a physically stressful period. This “high” is the physiological reaction to the release of endorphins – the masking of pain by a substance that mimics morphine. When people self-injure, the same process takes place. Endorphins are released which limit or block the amount of physical pain that’s experienced. Sometimes people who intentionally hurt themselves will even say that they felt a “rush” or “high” from the act. Given the role of endorphins, this makes perfect sense” (Oct 22, 2009).

Please click on the link for the full article Myths and Misconceptions of Self-Injury: Part II | Psychology Today Australia

The first step is to distinguish between self-harming and suicidal behaviour by paying attention to a person’s underlying motivation. When working with self-harming behaviour it is important to remember that this behaviour serves a purpose. In collaboration with the client, try to identify what problem self-harm solves for the client. For example, from the client’s perspective:

  • To make me feel real (counteracts dissociation)
  • To punish me (temporarily lessens guilt or shame)
  • To stop me from feeling (when strong feelings are too dangerous)
  • To mark the body (to show externally the internal scars)
  • To let something bad out (symbolic way to try to get rid of shame, pain, etc.)
  • To remember
  • To keep from hurting someone else (to control my behaviour and my anger)
  • To communicate (to let someone know how bad the pain is)
  • To express anger indirectly (to punish someone without getting them angry at me)
  • To reclaim control of the body (this time I’m in charge)
  • To feel better

Tips for helping yourself in the moment
It can be hard for people who self-harm to stop it by themselves. That’s why it’s important to get further help if needed; however, the ideas below may be helpful to start relieving some distress:

  • Intense exercise for 30 seconds, 30 second break, repeat, up to 15 minutes – Exercising intensely will help your body mitigate unpleasant energy that can sometimes be stored from strong emotions. Transfer this energy by running, walking at a fast pace, doing jumping jacks, etc. Exercise naturally releases endorphins which will help combat any negative emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness.
  • Delay — put off self-harming behaviours until you have spoken to someone.
  • Distract — do some exercise, go for a walk, play a game, do something kind for yourself, play loud music or use positive coping strategies.
  • Deep breathing — or other relaxation methods.
  • Cool your body temperature – Cooler temperatures decrease your heart rate (which is usually faster when we are emotionally overwhelmed). You can either splash your face with cold water, take a cold (but not too cold) shower, or if the weather outside is chilly you can go outside for a walk. Another idea is to take an ice cube and hold it in your hand or rub your face with it.
  • Listen to loud music
  • Call someone you trust or one of the services available like LifeLine 13 11 14, MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 and BeyondBlue 1300 22 4636 [see below].
  • You could write an email to yourself to express your emotions, or journal your feelings, if that’s something that might be effective for you.
  • Watch humorous Youtube clips

New, healthier coping strategies may not be as effective as the one you’re trying to replace so it may take practice. Bring lots of compassion to yourself, okay.

You may find that some of these strategies work in some situations but not others, or you may find that you need to use a combination of these. It’s important to find what works for you. Also, remember that these are not long-term solutions to self-harm but rather, useful short-term alternatives for relieving distress.

Mental health services infographic