Thinking Clearly in Stressful Times

Thinking Clearly in Stressful Times article by Dr. Sam Goldstein

Stress distorts our thinking. The COVID-19 pandemic not only stresses us about our health and finances but our very survival as a society. We all can identify with the emotional, physical and cognitive impact of stress on our bodies and minds. In my last article I reviewed the impact of stress on our minds and bodies. In stressful situations we struggle to concentrate, remember and learn. We are more prone to headaches, nausea and contracting illnesses. We are also more likely to experience thoughts and behaviors consistent with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

The culprit driving these changes, as I explained in my previous article, is a steroid hormone known as cortisol. When used as a medication it is known as hydrocortisone. Hydrocortisone as a topical agent can reduce swelling, itching and redness. However, within our body cortisol has far more reaching effects. Cortisol is produced in many animals, primarily in the adrenal glands. It functions to increase blood sugar, to suppress the immune system and aid in the metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates in our bodies. It also decreases bone formation. Think of cortisol as nature’s built in alarm system. It is your body’s main stress hormone. Once released into your bloodstream, it interacts with multiple systems in the brain and body, impacting mood, motivation, fear and learning. Cortisol can be found in your saliva and hair. Cortisol is perhaps best known as fueling your body’s “fight-or-flight” system, such that in a crisis you are more likely to survive. It regulates your blood pressure. Cortisol also controls your sleep wake cycle and under times of stress boosts your energy.

We know that moderately elevated cortisol is a good thing in times of stress. However, we also know that prolonged and significant elevations of cortisol in the body, as the result of ongoing stressful experiences, turns an important protective system into a powerful, adverse force capable of causing a broad range of emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physical problems. In this article I will focus on the types of thinking errors or cognitive distortions we are all prone to make under stress. The current levels of social distancing, staying at home and even quarantine also serves to increase our stress level.. Being deprived of interactions with others is a significant risk factor to develop mental health problems at all ages. For example, newborns of all species deprived of a consistent caretaker with whom they bond develop marasmus or failure to thrive. Further, a recent research trend is the investigation of the comparative effects of social isolation and loneliness in older adults. Depression and cardiovascular health are the most often researched outcomes, followed by well-being.

When you think about your life, it is quite possible at times that your mindset can or did distort your views. Cognitive distortions—when your mind puts a ‘spin’ on the events you see and attaches a not-so-objective interpretation to what you experience—happen all the time. They are especially common in people with depression and other mood disorders. They are also more prone to develop and be maintained under stress particularly when cortisol levels are elevated. Psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck created the theory of cognitive distortions in the 1960s. He then developed a method of psychotherapy and strategies to identify and modify these distortions demonstrating then when done people function better and are less stressed.

Here is what to listen for in your children and family members, and even yourselves. I will explain each type of distorted thought and offer a few simple strategies to help your children, family members and yourselves.

Absolute or Polarized Thinking. Absolute thinkers often use words like always and never when describing things. “I will never be good at math” or “You never listen to me!” This type of thinking can magnify any stressors in life, making them seem like bigger problems than they may, in reality, be. Here’s what to think, say or do when you identify this type of thought.

  • Realize that there are many of levels between success and failure. Rarely is anything absolute.
  • Understand that no single accomplishment or failure is going to determine your child’s future happiness.
  • Don’t expect that your values and those of your children will never change or that other people will value the same things as you.
  • Try to think critically about problems and model that type of thinking for your children.
  • Form a plan to deal with problems should they arise.

Overgeneralization or Catastrophizing: Children prone to catastrophizing tend to take isolated events and assume that all future events will be the same. For example, a child prone to overgeneralize losing a valued friend will quickly assume all friendships will share a similar fate. Here’s what to think, say or do when you identify this type of thought.

  • Observe and make note of your child’s tendency to overgeneralize in day-to-day life.
  • Next time when one of these situations arises, try to help your child examine the facts at the facts; is it really always or never or are you catastrophizing? Try to take your emotions out of the equation.
  • Try to treat events in the present, instead of taking single examples from the past as the predictor of what will happen in the future.

Jumping to conclusions: We do this all the time. Rather than letting the evidence bring us to a logical conclusion, we set our sights on a conclusion (often negative) and then look for evidence to back it up, ignoring evidence to the contrary. Here’s what to think, say or do when you identify this type of thought. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes for this type of thinking. Some children appear born to think this way. The best thing you can do is to model good problem-solving skills day after day. I use the GROW model developed by author and motivational speaker Alan Fine:

G is for Goal.       What am I trying to accomplish?
R is for Reality.       What obstacles stand in my way?
O is for Options.       What choices do I have available to me.
W is for Way Forward..       Implement my choice, evaluate my success and choose another option if needed.

Emotional reasoning: This one is a close relative of jumping to conclusions in that it involves ignoring certain facts when drawing conclusions. Emotional reasoners will consider their emotions about a situation as evidence rather than objectively looking at the facts. “I’m feeling completely overwhelmed, therefore, my problems must be overwhelming,” or, one of my favorites that all of our children resort to at some point, “I’m angry with your decision; therefore, you must be wrong and the source of my anger,” are both examples of faulty emotional reasoning. Here’s what to think, say or do when you identify this type of thought.

  • Look for evidence: What’s the evidence for and against your child’s position?
  • Teach your child to engage in self dialog asking questions such as: Am I focusing on the negatives and ignoring other information? Am I jumping to conclusions without looking at all the facts?
  • Search for alternative explanations: Are there any other possible explanations? Is there another way of looking at this? Am I being too inflexible in my thinking?
  • Put thoughts into perspective: Is it as bad as I am making out? What is the worst that could happen? How likely is it that the worst will happen? Even if it did happen, would it really be that bad? What could I do to get through it?
  • What is a more helpful thought? What can I say to myself that will help me remain calmer and help me achieve what I want to achieve in this situation?

Magnifying and Minimizing: This cognitive distortion involves placing a stronger emphasis on negative events and downplaying the positive ones. Here’s what to think, say or do when you identify this type of thought.

  • Learn to evaluate things clearly and objectively.
  • Look for positives.
  • Resist “minimalizing” your children’s efforts or achievements.
  • Acknowledge your child’s growth by comparing how you have improved or done things better than a month/year/five years ago.

Personalization: Those who personalize their stressors tend to blame themselves or others for things over which they have no control. Those prone to personalization tend to blame themselves for the actions of others or blame others for their feelings. Here’s what to think, say or do when you identify this type of thought.

  • Understand that your children may not be aware that their bad moods are on display.
  • Realize that children can have many competing thoughts in their heads.
  • If you really think you’ve done something wrong—ask them.
  • If nothing springs to mind, realize that you are most likely guilty of personalization, but don’t berate yourself for it. Observe it.
  • Try to avoid jumping to the conclusion that you are at fault next time around.
  • Try not to change your behavior around the person; their mood is their issue.

When you know what to look for, it becomes easy to spot cognitive distortions in yourself and others. It may be a little more challenging to spot your own, but it is very possible. Doing so usually brings lasting positive change in the way you cope with adversity and manage stressful experiences and everyday challenges.◆