When the mind plays tricks on us

In his last column, Dr. Rob Lees provided an overview to our summer series on Cognitive Distortions; this week’s finds us exploring the first one in more detail: Fortune Telling.

In his last column, Dr. Rob Lees provided an overview to our summer series on Cognitive Distortions; this week’s finds us exploring the first one in more detail: Fortune Telling.

Cognitive distortions, thought errors, or as I often tell the kids I work with, “Sometimes when our feelings are too high our thinking goes a little wonky and we say things to ourselves in our head or out loud that might not be true.” But whichever way you say it, it’s the same thing: Everything we think is an automatic thought because our minds seek to narrate what is going on around us. Problems arise when these thoughts manifest as cognitive distortions. Although based on deeply ingrained core beliefs they are still our mind playing tricks on us that can distort our perspective and ­objectivity.

The Fortune Telling Error is when we anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that our prediction is an already-established fact. When we assume that we know what will happen in the future, based upon little or no evidence, we’re fortune telling. Sometimes we even try to predict an outcome when there’s evidence to the contrary. Fortune Telling can take many forms, sometimes it starts with a “What if” –  these types of thoughts relate to feelings of somehow not being able to cope or manage in the future.

So what do you do when you notice yourself, a family member or your child fortune telling? First off we have to recognize it (the irrational reaction and the stressful situation that led to it) and then we want to replace it (with a fair and realistic and rational thought). A global replacement thought might be: “I don’t know what the future will bring but I am managing right now.” Anchors us in the present, and reminds us of the truth.

This past week I kept track of the Fortune Teller thought errors that came up during sessions with clients (beside each one is the replacement thought my clients came up with).

What if I never get a boyfriend/girlfriend? I don’t want a boyfriend/girlfriend right now and when I do I’ll think about it then.

I’ll never pass that test. If I haven’t taken the test yet how do I know how I’ll do on it?

If I failed math this year, I’ll probably fail it again next year. I found math tough this year but I’ve learned what I need to do to be successful at it next year.

My mom is never going to listen to me. Sometimes it feels like she will never listen but I have to give her a chance to change.

My son/daughter is always going to be this way. Worrying about their future and predicting it is not the same thing.

There’s no way I’m ever going to get that job. I dropped off my resume, I phoned back, I need to try hard in the interview and that’s all I can do.

Automatic thoughts, if left unchecked, may lead to concerns like anxiety and/or depression. Fortune telling is often connected to anxiety, particularly anticipatory anxiety – worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, but might happen… in a second, or a minute, or a day, or a month from now.

Over the summer the three of us encourage you to be on the lookout for thought errors in your own self-talk and that of your children – wouldn’t it be nice to reduce your reactivity to the stress in your life and help your children do the same. Notice it, reframe it, and model it. Sometimes it’s easier to spot the cognitive distortions in other peoples’ thinking but don’t let that deter you from challenging yourself to truly listen to that internal (sometimes external) dialogue that we tell ourselves.

Eryn Wicker (M.A., R.C.C.) is a mental health clinician with the Child and Youth Mental Health team of the Ministry of Children and family Development, Chilliwack, BC.

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