Tool 4: Recognize Thinking Traps
Of course we feel distressed when real and upsetting things happen, like when a loved one is sick. However, sometimes we can get stuck in a pattern of feeling upset or anxious even when the situation doesn’t warrant this reaction. For example, we feel equally cautious and on edge when our loved one is feeling better, because the person could get sick again. There is no relief!
Below are some common unhelpful thinking styles that keep people “trapped” in distress. We call these “thinking traps.”
It’s common to fall into these traps every now and then for brief periods of time. But if you experience problematic anxiety, you might find yourself falling into these traps frequently and getting stuck in them.
Knowing your thinking traps gives you a quick way to know when not to trust what you think. We all do it sometimes, and recognizing when we are using them is an important step for releasing their hold on us. Here are some very common types of thinking traps:
Trap: Jumping to Conclusions
We predict what is going to happen, with little or no evidence. This can include thinking that you know what others are thinking (mind reading), without any evidence.
Example: With my luck, I’ll end up with a fussy, colicky baby.
Trap: Worst-Case Scenario
We exaggerate how badly something will turn out and how we will be unable to cope.
Example: The doctor’s office just phoned and wanted me to call back. There must be something terribly wrong with the screening test results and the baby. I just won’t be able to handle it if something is wrong with the baby.
Trap: It’s All My Fault
We take on too much responsibility and believe that if we have any influence over a negative outcome then we are responsible for preventing it.
Example: I’m fully responsible for the health of my baby. If anything goes wrong with the pregnancy, it’ll be my fault.
Trap: Harsh Critic
We impose harsh rules or labels on ourselves or others about the way we SHOULD behave and/or feel.
Example: I’m an ungrateful woman for not enjoying my pregnancy as much as I should.
Trap: Black-and-White Thinking
We think in extreme (or all-or-nothing) terms and view things as either perfect or a complete disaster or failure.
Example: The baby isn’t even here yet and we’re already fighting about him/her. Once the baby arrives, we’ll be fighting all the time.
Trap: Confusing Thoughts with Actual Probability
We believe that thinking about a negative event or action actually increases the likelihood of it happening.
Example: I have to stop thinking that something might go wrong with the birth because I’ll jinx it and cause something bad to happen.
Trap: Confusing Thoughts with Actions
We believe having the thought about doing something undesirable is the same as actually doing it.
Example: When I get scary thoughts about stepping into traffic, I worry that I will lose control and actually do it. To keep myself safe, I avoid going out as much as possible and only go out with someone else, to make sure that I do not act on my thoughts.
Trap: If It “Feels” True, It Must Be True
We use emotional reasoning – using our feelings as evidence that our thoughts are really true, even when there is little or no concrete evidence to support them.
Example: I feel really anxious about the upcoming ultrasound. That’s a sign. I’m probably going to find out that there’s something wrong with the baby.