May 22, 2000 -- Philosophers and poets have long known that your thoughts can be your own worst enemy. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
Cognitive therapy helps people recognize when their own negative thoughts are pushing them into depression or anxiety. Experts at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy have identified a dozen common thinking errors that can skew your judgment and make it hard to appraise your situation realistically.
When heart specialist John M. Kennedy, M.D., of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, stands at the scrub sink before an operation, he breathes deeply with seven-count exhales, visualizing how he wants the procedure to go. "Athletes use these techniques to perform under pressure, but we can all call on them in our regular lives," Dr. Kennedy says. It starts with knowing what kind of breathing works best for the challenge you're facing. Here's what the latest research shows.
"If you believe these negative thoughts," says Leslie Sokol, director of education at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., "they can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's why it's a good thing to take stock of your beliefs -- especially when you're under stress."
How do you know if you're falling victim to your own distorted thinking? Here are six of the common thinking errors identified by cognitive therapists:
All or nothing thinking: You don't see middle ground. You assume if you don't get the promotion, the company wants to ease you out the door.
Reality check: You've had two promotions in the last five years -- more than anyone else in your department.
Overgeneralization: You extrapolate your future based on a single event. You figure that if you failed the bar exam on the first try, you're just not cut out to be a lawyer.
Reality check: Many people take the bar exam more than once. If you convince yourself you're going to fail, you'll have no motivation to study.
Minimizing and maximizing: You inflate your errors and discount your accomplishments. You made two typos in your presentation and tell yourself you've blown the whole assignment.
Reality check: Your boss said it was a good report.
Fortune-telling: You predict that things will turn out badly, no matter what you say or do. Your new boyfriend does not call you as promised before a business trip, and you spend the week convinced he's breaking up with you.
Reality check: You know he's busy. Besides, it will take you both a few more months to get to know each other and decide if you're a good match.
Emotional reasoning: You get lost in your emotions. You spill food on yourself at a restaurant and feel like a jerk, so you assume other people see you that way, too.
Reality check: You're sensitive to other people's feelings -- and that's why others like to be with you.
Shoulds and oughts: You focus on other people's expectations of you, instead of on your own needs. You feel you ought to help a co-worker with his project -- even though it will make you fall behind in your work.
Reality check: Your co-worker has an assistant who might be glad to pick up some overtime. You can suggest that he ask his assistant for help.
Valerie Andrews has written for Intuition, HealthScout, and many other publications. She lives in Greenbrae, Calif.