Have you ever been to a fun house with those strange mirrors that make you look super tall and thin or short and round? There really is an image of you on the mirror, but it is not very accurate. We have things like that in our brains! Not the actual mirrors of course, but people can struggle with patterns of thinking called cognitive distortions, as well as with automatic thoughts.
Cognitive distortions are tricks that our thinking plays on us to skew how we interpret situations. These happen to everyone at some point, but when you struggle with anxiety or depression, these tend to be more frequent and intense. Automatic thoughts are thoughts that pop into our head about ourselves, others, our environment, and the past/present/future. We have very little control over our automatic thoughts, but they can have a big influence on our emotions and our behaviors. When you combine having negative automatic thoughts with entrenched cognitive distortions, it can lead to some pretty bleak thought patterns, particularly for teens. For example, imagine sitting in class and hearing an announcement over the loud speaker asking you to go to the principal’s office. Where do your thoughts go? For many people their thoughts may sound like: “I’m in trouble” “Something is wrong” “Busted” “What’d I do?” It is not often that your thoughts would go straight to “Maybe I won an award” or “Mom may have dropped off lunch for me.” When our thinking is distorted, we jump to conclusions, we predict the future, and we think about things in black and white terms. It can be difficult to challenge these automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions.
In the thoughts module of the Healthy Emotions Program (HEP), we help teens to do just that using techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy. We spend two weeks learning how to identify negative automatic thoughts, cognitive distortions, and how these types of thinking can negatively impact our emotions and actions. Think back to the example above when you are called to the principal’s office, or if it is easier, think about being called to the office of your boss. Take a moment and think about how you would feel if you immediately thought you were in trouble. Now think about how you would feel if, instead of being in trouble, you thought you won an award. You would likely have pretty different emotional responses. And your emotional response would influence how you might behave. If you were nervous because you thought you were in trouble, you might slowly make your way to the office with your head down. In contrast, winning an award you would walk proudly through the halls.
Teens learn how to slow down the thought process and challenge some of their initial impressions. We work to develop counter thoughts that are more realistic than our distortions. We develop strategies to change our unhelpful thoughts to helpful thoughts, all with the goal of improving our mood. With persistence and consistent practice, we do not eliminate all negative automatic thoughts or cognitive distortions, but we do start to have more control over how they influence our emotions and behaviors. During HEP, parents also learn how to challenge their own unhelpful thoughts, as well as how to support their teens in making these changes.