Quick recap of the sessions so far in my group CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) program for social anxiety:
- Session 1 focused on starting to rate our level of anxiety in given situations and recognize our physical sensations, thoughts, and behaviours. We were also introduced to the Three Components of Anxiety Monitoring Form, which was the first iteration of the monitoring forms we have been using every week. Read that post here!
- Session 2 focused on teaching us about cognitive distortions, or, as one psychotherapist I used to see called them, “wonky thinking.” Read that post here! I also have a related post on mind reading.
And that brings us to Session 3. The magic started to happen this week, because after learning about cognitive distortions, the real goal is to challenge those distortions with a more realistic thought process.
Brace yourself, my friends, because this is where we start to knock the brain bully off its gold-medal podium.
[Edited 07/12/18 to add]
A special note for any former group members who may stumble upon this series…
Hi there 🙂 If you haven’t read any of the other posts, let me assure you that I have never revealed any personal or confidential information about you or even shared your stories anonymously. I may have made brief references here and there to “group members” as an anonymous whole, but never in specific or revealing detail. This series has been strictly and diligently focused on my own experience and thoughts. I truly hope that in writing it, I did not do anything to make you feel that I breached the trust of our group. Good luck to all of you and thank you so much for being so brave and supportive. xoxoxo
Countering a distortion involves asking healthier, more realistic questions to help pull you away from the brain bully’s toxic thought-vortex. Using the distortions from my Session 2 post, it looks a little something like this:
COUNTERING COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS
AKA FUCK YOU, BRAIN BULLY
Note: I’m just going to present one or two challenges per distortion here, but there are many ways to take down the distortion demon. If you want a more detailed list, just leave a comment and let me know! 🙂
- Probability overestimation: A bad thing is likely to happen (except it’s not actually that likely).
- Counter: What are other possible ways this could go? Is the Worst Case Scenario the only or most likely outcome here?
- Catastrophizing: If a bad thing happens (which it will — see #1), it will be catastrophic. One bad thing will unleash a domino effect where each domino is laced with horror and despair until every one of us is devoured by the bloodthirsty jaws of inescapable death (credit for that exquisite turn of phrase goes to Moana’s grandma in this opening scene.)
- Counter: Okay, so, barring actual devouring by jaws of death, if my worst case scenario does come true, how bad would it *actually* be? A year from now, looking back, will I still think it’s earth-ending?
- Mind reading: I know what you’re thinking about me, and it’s bad. (I have a whole post on mind reading here.)
- Counter: Listen, self, do I reeeeeaaalllly know what they are thinking? What ELSE could they be thinking?
- Fortune telling: I have an invisible crystal ball that is telling me that this is going to end badly. (There’s some overlap with many of these — this one makes me think of #1 and #2.)
- Counter: Am I jumping to conclusions (probably)? Can I know FOR SURE what the future will bring (probably not)?
- Personalization: Whatever it is, whenever it happened, if it was bad, it was my fault.
- Counter: What other factors might be at play here? Does there HAVE to be someone to blame? (Shut up, brain bully, the answer is probably no.)
- Minimizing the positives: This is the “yeah, but” distortion. If you call me brave, I will say (in my mind) “Yeah, but you only think that because [you don’t know me that well/I’m medicated/you’re trying to make me feel better].”
- Counter: Am I maybe, just maaaaybe, focusing on my weaknesses and forgetting my strengths? (I told you to be quiet, brain bully. Go sit over there in the corner near my… um… *googling unimportant part of the brain*… fuck, it’s all important OBVIOUSLY… *googling brain parts in general*… go lie on my… corpus callosum??? What even… MOVING ON.)
- Discounting coping skills: If something bad or hard happens (it will), I won’t be able to handle it.
- Counter: Am I forgetting similar situations that I handled well, or at least coped with and got through?
- Should statements: One of our group therapists calls this “shoulding all over yourself.” I think of it as being “full of should.” I should be better at this. I shouldn’t need so much help or time. I should never be a bother to anyone. [I am the queen of shoulding all over myself.] Applies to “must” and “must not” statements too.
- Counter: Would I hold a friend or relative to the same standards? (HELLLLL to the no.)
- All-or-nothing/black-and-white thinking: Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. If I don’t finish my race in a personal best time, everyone will think I slacked on training and it will just prove to them that I am lazy and undisciplined.
- Counter: Is there an in-between or grey area I’m ignoring?
- Selective attention and memory: Noticing and remembering the negative more than the positive. That one temper tantrum this morning means that my kids are miserable with me as a mother and I am not doing a good enough job. (Never mind that our kids are happy, healthy, and loved.)
- Counter: Are there strengths in me I’m ignoring? Would an onlooker see it the same way?
Here is an example from my monitoring form for this week:
SITUATION: As I walked into daycare one morning, the supervisor asked if I could come by her office after dropping off the kids in their rooms.
ANXIETY LEVEL: Spiked pretty quickly to an 80
AUTOMATIC THOUGHTS: She’s going to tell me I’m too irregular with drop-off and pick-up times. She thinks I’m flakey and don’t provide enough stability to my children. She feels inconvenienced by my erratic drop-off times. My children will never learn structure or time management and will become homeless axe-wielding serial killers.
- Probability overestimation: She’s going to tell me I’m too irregular with drop-off and pick-up times.
- Mind reading: She thinks I’m flakey and don’t provide enough stability to my children.
- Mind reading: She feels inconvenienced by my erratic drop-off times.
- CATASTROPHIZING AF: My children will never learn structure or time management and will become homeless axe-wielding serial killers.
- Maybe she just needs to talk about something benign and administrative.
- Maybe she thinks I’m a great mom.
- I can’t be the only parent who doesn’t do drop-off and pick-up like clockwork.
- The daycare is open from 7:30 am to 6 pm. I’m sure it’s fine if sometimes I come at 8:30 am and sometimes I come at 9:30 am.
- It is probably not likely that both of my kids will become homeless AND axe-wielders AND serial killers.
(By the way, OUTCOME: She just needed to check something about the postdated cheques I had given her. *facepalm*)
SESSION 3 TAKE-HOME MESSAGES:
- Beach ball analogy: A few people in the group asked if it was normal for their anxiety and emotions to be flaring up and overflowing since starting the group. The therapists said yes, absolutely. They asked us to picture anxiety like a beach ball that we’ve been trying to keep under the surface of the water. Once our group started, we gave ourselves permission to take the pressure off the ball. And holy hell did it splash back up into our faces.
- Avoiding anxiety triggers: Short-term gain, long-term pain. Facing your fears: Short-term pain, long-term gain. Anxiety does decrease over time.
- Fear of judgment of my parenting skills is a huge anxiety theme for me. So is fear of how my parenting will impact my children (that taps into my perfectionism and low-esteem challenges, as well).
- Reassurance-seeking is a safety behaviour, and one I am prone to.
- Best Friend Technique: We talked about a few other ways to “untwist your thinking,” and the one that resonated most with me was the Best Friend Technique, which involves asking yourself if you would judge your best friend as harshly as you judge yourself. For almost everyone, we give way more compassion to others than we do ourselves.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED:
Anxiety is a shared human experience.
I did not choose my anxiety and do not need to feel shame for it. Mental health disorders are worthy of immense self-compassion and understanding for the invisible turmoil they wreak upon their hosts.
Give yourself a little grace. Loosen that noose of self-judgment and condemnation. It’s okay to show a little vulnerabilty.
Breathe. We are all but human.
I’d love to hear if any of this speaks to you. Do you ever experience any cognitive distortions? How do you challenge them?