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1. Ready

What are thinking traps?

Thinking traps are patterns or habits of thought that keep you “trapped” in distress, anxiety, or negativity. It’s common to fall into these traps every now and then, but people who struggle with their mental health may find themselves stuck in these traps more frequently and for longer periods.

The most common thinking traps are described below:

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All-or-Nothing (Black-and-White) Thinking
Explanation: You think about and look at a situation as being either one extreme or the other. A situation can be either a success or a failure. You can either be good or bad. There is no middle ground.
Example: “I didn’t get perfect, therefore I failed”
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Overgeneralization (Blanketing)
Explanation: You apply one negative experience to all experiences and let a small, simple event or experience define a large, complex concept. You tend to use the words always and never to describe experiences.
Example: “Why does this always happen to me?” or “I can never do anything right!”
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Mind reading
Explanation: You make assumptions and inferences about what a person is thinking or feeling without any concrete evidence and without asking the other person for clarification.
Example: You see a group of friends laughing as you walk by and tell yourself that they are laughing about you.
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Fortune telling
Explanation: You believe that the future is set in stone and you “know” that things will turn out bad. You tend to act according to this belief, giving rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Example: “I know that I am going to fail my exam” (as a result you might not study, which then leads to you failing your exam)
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Filtering
Explanation: You only focus on the negative aspects of a situation and ignore, or filter out, the positive. In your mind, everything is negative and nothing positive has happened.
Example: After giving a presentation, you receive a lot of compliments and positive feedback, but John looked bored and disinterested the whole time. The only thing that you can think about for the rest of the day is that, based on John’s lack of engagement, your presentation must have been terrible.
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Catastrophizing
Explanation: You anticipate the worst-case scenario and predict that you won’t be able to handle the outcome of that worst-case scenario when, in reality, that worst-case scenario is likely never going to happen and, if it did, you would probably be able to handle it.
Example: “I am going to fail this test and be kicked out of school. Then I’ll never be able to get a job and end up on the streets, disowned by my family.”
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Should Statements
Explanation: You have specific rules about how you, or others, should and should not behave. You assume personal responsibility, or place blame on somebody, for the outcome of a situation, and you believe that you, or the other person, is the reason behind that outcome.
Example: “We lost the football game because I should have played better.”
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Emotional Reasoning
Explanation: You take your emotions as evidence for the truth. You regard your feelings as being automatically and unconditionally true, regardless of any factual or concrete evidence otherwise. You take an “I feel therefore I am” approach.
Example: “If I feel stupid, then I am stupid” or “If I feel worthless, then I am worthless”
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Labelling
Explanation: You attach a negative label to yourself rather than an action or mistake.
Example: “I am a terrible person” rather than “I did a terrible thing”

What are the dangers of thinking traps?

Thinking traps, also known as
cognitive distortions, Felgoise, S., Nezu, A., Nezu, C., & Reinecke, M. (2005). Encyclopedia of Cognitive Behavior Therapy [electronic resource]. (1st ed. 2005.). Springer US.
“have been specifically identified as playing an important role in the maintenance of emotional disorders”. In fact, an entire field of psychotherapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) stemmed from Dr. Aaron Beck’s observation that many of his patients struggling with depression made false assumptions and had distorted thinking. Beck related these cognitive distortions to the patients’ symptoms and hypothesized that it was possible to improve their symptoms by changing their thinking. His hypothesis was true and CBT is now recognized as the
“gold standard” David, D., Cristea, I., & Hofmann, S. (2018). Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Is the Current Gold Standard of Psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 4.
for psychotherapy.

Research Alloy, L., Abramson, L., & Francis, E. (1999). Do Negative Cognitive Styles Confer Vulnerability to Depression? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(4), 128–132.
has found that negative cognitive styles, such as those underpinning thinking traps, confer vulnerability to clinically significant levels of depression and suicidality, largely because they trap you in a cycle of self-criticism, blame, shame, and negativity. However,
research Jaycox, L., Reivich, K., Gillham, J., & Seligman, M. (1994). Prevention of depressive symptoms in school children. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 32(8), 801–816.
has also shown that proactively teaching cognitive techniques to children and adolescents (ages 10-13) who are identified as “at-risk” of developing emotional and behavioural challenges, significantly reduces depressive symptoms and improves classroom behaviour for up to six months after learning the CBT techniques.

How do I get out of a thinking trap?

It’s easiest to fall into a thinking trap (or thought hole) when you face adversity, uncertainty, or insecurity.  

Here are five steps that you can follow to avoid getting stuck in a thinking trap:



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Catch: Grab your thoughts. Become aware of what you are thinking.
Ex. When Aubrey was asked to stay after class to chat with his Math teacher, Aubrey thought that he probably failed a recent test. For the rest of the class, Aubrey couldn’t stop thinking about how his parents were going to ground him for the rest of the month, shame him, and consider him a disgrace to the family. Aubrey tells himself that his life is over.
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Check: Check for thought holes. Identify any thinking traps that you might be using.
Ex. If Aubrey had stopped to check for thinking traps, he would have recognized that he was catastrophizing. Aubrey is predicting the worst-case scenario and believes that he won’t be able to handle it.
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Collect: Gather evidence for and against your thoughts to paint an accurate picture.
Ex. If Aubrey had tried to find evidence for and against his thoughts, then he would have struggled to find evidence for his prediction and a lot of evidence against it. Although it’s true that teachers sometimes ask you to talk after class when something is wrong, Aubrey also knows that teachers sometimes ask you to talk after class when something is right and his Math teacher did not seem upset or concerned when he asked to chat. Aubrey knows that he studied hard for the previous test and that he normally does well in Math. As for his parents, Aubrey has never been grounded before and his parents always tell him that they don’t care about the outcome as long as he tries his best.
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Challenge: Challenge your original thoughts with a more accurate thought.
Ex. Given the evidence at hand, Aubrey can challenge his initial thoughts. The most effective and entertaining way for Aubrey to do this is to have a debate with himself. On one side of the debate is the Aubrey who believes he failed the math test, whose parents will consider him a disgrace, and whose world is about to end. On the other side of the debate is the Aubrey who believes that nothing is wrong and that, even if something were wrong, he could handle it. Using the evidence he collected, Aubrey can then engage in the debate and settle on a more accurate way of thinking that enhances his mental and emotional wellbeing.
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Change: Change the thought and, if necessary, make a behavioural or environmental change to support the more accurate thought.
Ex. If Aubrey is having a really hard time challenging his original thoughts, then he might approach his Math teacher and ask him to clarify what he wants to talk about and whether or not he should be concerned. His Math teacher’s answer will minimize the uncertainty that Aubrey is experiencing, which is fueling his anxiety. Even if his Math teacher confirms that it’s not going to be a positive conversation, Aubrey can stop “what iffing” and instead focus on mentally and emotionally preparing himself to bounce back better.

Where can I learn more?

Heretohelp – Wellness Module 8: Healthy Thinking

CBT Explained: An Overview and Summary of CBT

College of Education – Cognitive-Behavioural Strategies in the Classroom

TED Talk – Feeling Good by David Burns

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Define and efficiently identify common thinking traps
  • Develop skills to prevent them from getting stuck in negative patterns of thought
  • Use the 5 C’s – catch, check, collect, challenge, change – to develop more accurate and flexible thinking styles
  • Examine evidence for and against a negative thought to prove that it’s a distorted view of reality
References
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Alloy, L., Abramson, L., & Francis, E. (1999). Do Negative Cognitive Styles Confer Vulnerability to Depression? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(4), 128–132.

David, D., Cristea, I., & Hofmann, S. (2018). Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Is the Current Gold Standard of Psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 4.

Felgoise, S., Nezu, A., Nezu, C., & Reinecke, M. (2005). Encyclopedia of Cognitive Behavior Therapy [electronic resource]. (1st ed. 2005.). Springer US.

Jaycox, L., Reivich, K., Gillham, J., & Seligman, M. (1994). Prevention of depressive symptoms in school children. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 32(8), 801–816.

Usen, S.A., Eneh, G.A., & Udom, I.E. (2016). Cognitive Distortion as Predictor of In-School Adolescents’ Depressive Symptoms and Academic Performance in South-South, Nigeria. Journal of Education and Practice, 7(17), 23-27. ISSN 2222-288X (Online).

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