What is a Thinking Trap?
In my Rethink Course and my book Stress Less, Live More , I discuss ten common thinking traps related to stress. Thinking traps are stereotypical ways of viewing potentially stressful situations that often lead to stress. Most of these traps are so insidious that you don’t even realize that you fell into them and that they triggered a stress response.
In this post I’d like to share three of my favorite common thinking traps related to stress. These account for a large majority of my unhelpful thinking. Over the years I’ve become pretty good at sensing that I am about to fall into one of them. This allows me to step back and reassess my thoughts without getting trapped.
The “I Can Figure it All Out in My Head” Trap
One of the most common thinking traps is the “I Can Figure it All Out in My Head” trap. The name is pretty self-explanatory as this trap revolves around the mistaken belief that you can control your stress-related pain and suffering by figuring everything out in your head in advance. Instead of directly experiencing the potentially-stressful situation and seeing how it works out in real life you avoid it and spend endless hours ruminating about all of the things that could potentially go wrong and how to control them.
This is a trap for a couple of reasons. For one, you can never predict in advance how things will actually turn out. You might be pleasantly surprised at the outcome. The second reason this is a trap because as soon as your mind figures out the answer to one problem or question related to the situation it creates another, and another, and another. This endless stream of consciousness keeps you stuck as your mind keeps coming up with new worries to ponder.
A perfect example of this happened to me a couple of years ago when I was asked to train a group of mental health clinicians in how to use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT )principles and practices with their clients. Although I was flattered and excited about the possibility of earning extra income through training mental health professionals, the prospect of doing so triggered a flood of troubling thoughts and painful emotions in my mind.
As I lay in bed the night before my first training program my mind was spinning with the following thoughts; “I don’t have enough clinical experience to work with these folks”, “I’ll look foolish trying to lecture these people”, ” I won’t be able to answer all of their questions and look like a fool”, “I don’t know enough about ACT to train anyone”, “I’ll do a terrible job and never be asked to do any training again”, and “I’m not ready for this.”
When I closed my eyes and imagined what the following day would look like, I saw people getting up and leaving early and the rest sitting back silently and looking bored, with their arms crossed over their chests, shooting me disapproving looks.
Instead of accepting the negative self-talk and scary mental images triggered by my mind, I spent hours trying to figure out every possible thing that could go wrong with the training. After a few hours of trying to work this all out in my head I decided to practice what I was going to preach the next day and accept the things I couldn’t control and focus on the things I could (my preparation, training materials, and energy level).
I also decided to do three training programs as a trial. If, after doing three of them I did not enjoy the experience or do a credible job, I would stop doing the trainings. I accepted the fact that the only way to know what the experience of training mental health clinicians would be like was to actually do it.
Amazingly, the actual experience of doing the trainings was completely different from what my mind told me it would be like.
I learned that I knew more than enough about ACT to satisfy my audience. I actually surprised myself with the depth of my knowledge of the subject. My audiences for all three training sessions were engaged, asked lots of good questions, and shared their clinical experience with each other. Instead of bored, scowling faces I saw lots of smiles, encouraging nods, and knowing looks. In addition, I met some wonderful people, expanded my professional network and got to experience some interesting cities where the trainings were held. I also realized that I enjoyed working with this audience and looked forward to being able to continue such work in the future.
If I had listened to my mind and tried to avoid the troubling thoughts and painful emotions by not accepted the job I never would have known what it was like. I would have avoided an enriching experience and entirely new professional direction for me to pursue.
The “Thoughts Are Reality” Trap
Another favorite thinking trap of mine is the “Thoughts are Reality” trap. This trap is based on the perception that your thoughts about something represent the objective reality of the situation. In fact, unless you are experiencing something directly in the present moment, your thoughts about it are just that, your thoughts.
An example of this is reading about something that was reported in the newspaper, like an allegations brought against a political figure during his House and Senate hearings. You read the story, got the “facts” about the alleged incident, and your mind created your thoughts about it. Your reality of the allegations is really your version of what your mind told you about it after you read the story. Your thoughts about the event are based on secondhand accounts of it as reported in the newspaper and your interpretation of this as it passed through the filters of your mind.
You fall into the “Thoughts are Reality” trap when you believe that your thoughts about the event are the actual reality of what happened.
The “Permanence” Trap
Another one of my favorites, “The Permanence Trap”, comes from the work of Martin Seligman (1990), a pioneer in the Positive Psychology movement. Seligman wrote that each of us has an “explanatory style” that relates to how we view the world. Our explanatory style has three key components that relate to stressful thinking; permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.
Permanence refers to how long you believe stressful events will last. If you view a temporary stressor as something that will “last forever” and affect you “permanently”, you’re falling into the permanence trap. People who continually fall into this trap frequently use words such as “always” and “never” to describe situations. They say things like “These kinds of things always happen to me, or I’ll never be able to get it right, or I’ll never get out of debt, or I’ll never find someone to love me”,
For example, imagine that you had an emergency car repair that cost between $1,000.00 and $5,000.00. While this is a significant financial hit to take, it isn’t something that will “last forever.” Equating it to the loss of a loved one or developing a chronic disease that will be with you forever, working your way out of debt doesn’t have the same kind of permanence. Remember: you fall into the Permanence Trap when you view a temporary stressor as something that will last forever. and affect you permanently.
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