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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cognitive Distortion of the month: Negative Filter

8:42 PM Posted by Stephanie Horgan , ,
In 2014, Dr. Taft and I took turns writing monthly entries on rare diseases, in order to bring more awareness to the psychosocial aspects of living with chronic illness. In 2015, we are going to do a monthly blog entry on various cognitive distortions (although we are off to a late start!). For February, I am writing about the distortion called "negative filter". But first, let's discuss what a cognitive distortion is. It is simply an unhelpful thought pattern that is very common but lead people to feeling stuck in depression or anxiety. Since we are big believers in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) here at Oak Park Behavioral Medicine, we wanted to spend some time looking into the various patterns that trip people up. CBT is a theory that looks at three aspects of a person: thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

A negative filter is when a person views information through a negative lens. The positive aspects of life are disregarded, and the negative aspects are focused on. As you might be able to forsee, this can be particularly depressing when everywhere you look, you see negativity. An example of this distortion is when many things go right at work, but a person gets hung up on the one thing that went wrong during their day. Maybe they overslept, or maybe a meeting didn't go as well as planned, but there were other positive moments throughout the day that got completely overshadowed by this negative event.

Why does this happen, you might ask? Well, we know from research that our brains are wired to react more strongly to negative stimuli than to neutral or positive stimuli. Researchers believe this is an evolutionary behavior that helps us pay attention to the things that may hurt us so that we can survive these threats. Research conducted with married couples has found that the ideal ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions is 5:1. The higher the ratio of positives to negatives, the more stable the marriage tends to be.

When we realize we have this negative filter, what can be done about it? The answer is to simply change our focus and look for positive things, no matter how small they seem. Be intentional about spending a few minutes at the beginning or end of your day to recognize what is going right and what you are thankful for. Then throughout your day, when you find yourself stuck in negative thoughts, take a few deep breaths, and use logic to challenge your thought that you are stuck on. Is it true? Is it helpful? What other perspectives are there? Realizing that you have a the power to change your thoughts and that this can, in turn, change your mood is a main building block of the therapy we do. One particularly helpful suggestion I share with clients is to start a happiness jar, an idea from Elizabeth Gilbert. She is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, and she challenged all her followers to start a daily practice of looking for positives and writing them down. Then find a jar around the house to keep all of these positive slips of paper and read them at the end of each year. The key is to do this as consistently as possible. Do not beat yourself up if you forget. There is nothing too small to be a positive from your day, although some days it may be easier than others to identify things. The overall goal is that you are changing the way your brain is wired, by choosing to look for positives, rather than allowing your negative filter to take over.