During a recent virtual meeting, our team were looking at a word cloud generated by a short questionnaire. It aimed to capture how the people were feeling whilst the country was in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. I read the words, many of them descriptive and probably very familiar; “uncertain”, “challenge”, “complex”, “weird”, “huge”, “disruptive”. I was impressed that everyone seemed to be fine.
Then the host commented that perhaps people were struggling and might need some support. Ouch! How could I miss that? I had spent many years as a mental health nurse. I liked to think I was pretty tuned-in to this kind of stuff. Or was something else going on?
Our mood is part of our “mental filter”; it affects how we receive and respond to messages
Then I remembered. Our mood is part of our “mental filter”; it affects how we receive and respond to messages. I was feeling fine, so I read those words as things to feel fine about. Maybe even exciting – I love a complex, uncertain challenge! But for other people, that could be entirely the opposite. A complex, uncertain challenge could feel like something very threatening.
This idea of a “mental filter” is just one of ten “Thinking Errors” I learned as an Mental Health Nurse (RMN) in the eighties. It remains one of the most useful things I think I ever learned. It is more appropriately referred to as “Unhelpful Thinking Styles” or “Cognitive Distortions” these days, and is one of the foundations from which a variety of effective therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), have developed.
So, with apologies to therapists, psychologists and practitioners everywhere; here is a reminder of this brilliant approach. I’m calling it Resilience is for Life – not just for Crises.
The theory goes something like this:
- Feelings are not randomly generated, they are deeply connected to my own “internal dialogue.”
- Therefore, how I feel depends on what I think.
- And since my thoughts (the internal dialogue) can be controlled by me, I can learn to change them.
- And by changing my internal dialogue I can learn to understand and my feelings and, if necessary, regulate my mood or behaviour.
Here are the ten categories of thoughts to keep a watch on:
- Black and White (or All or Nothing) thinking e.g. “Either do it right or not at all”, or “if it isn’t perfect it’s because I’m useless.”
- Mental filter has two aspects; one is your mood affecting the way you process incoming information, the other is about only paying attention to certain types of information, e.g. noticing when things go wrong but not when they go well.
- Over generalising; using a single or infrequent event to predict a pattern; “I always lose things” or applying broad conclusions, e.g. “Nothing good happens to me.”
- Dis-counting the good; not accepting compliments, e.g. “This old thing…” and dismissing when good things happen; “It was only because …”
- Jumping to conclusions; mind reading; “She must be looking at me because my face is sweaty.” Predicting the future; “It’s bound to go wrong.”
- Blowing things up or catastrophising; “It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” Or this can take the form of the opposite when something serious is brushed over; “Oh it’s nothing, I’ll be fine.”
- Should and Must. Using these potentially critical words may compel action or lead to feelings of guilt.
- Personalisation; Inappropriately blaming yourself or believing that a general comment is aimed specifically at you. This also applies when you are unable to acknowledge when you are at fault.
- Emotional reasoning; Making assumptions that because you feel a certain way, the thoughts must be true; e.g. feeling embarrassed about not knowing something and thinking “I am stupid.”
- Labelling; Giving yourself or other people a label, e.g. “I am a nervous wreck”, or “She is always super-confident.”
There are lots of helpful resources online, including apps such as Catch It if you are interested in using the approach systematically.