The Huffington Post featured a recent article written by life coach and author Tamara Star entitled, “The Seven Habits of Chronically Unhappy People.” What Ms. Star probably doesn’t realize, is that her article would better be titled “Seven Symptoms of People Who’ve Experienced Trauma and PTSD.”
People who experience trauma can suffer from a variety of symptoms, and they often don’t link their symptoms to a specific cause. Most people tend to think of trauma as a catastrophic event, like war-time military service, sexual abuse, or surviving a hurricane. But a traumatic event can be any terrifying experience that overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope. And one of the symptoms that can result from trauma is called cognitive distortion.
Simply put, cognitive distortion is a way of evaluating our world, ourselves, or our own thinking, that’s inconsistent with what’s really going on.
Tamara Star’s article describes seven areas of thinking that are typical for people who struggle with cognitive dissonance:
Your default belief that life is hard.
You believe most people can’t be trusted.
You concentrate on what’s wrong with the world, rather than what’s right.
You compare yourself to others and harbor jealousy (or are convinced you’re a failure–my addition).
You strive to control your life.
You consider your future with worry and fear.
You fill your conversation with gossip and complaints. (Not necessarily a cognitive distortion or something only people who’v experienced trauma tend to do.)
Cognitive distortion often comes as a result of rewiring in the brain following trauma. People’s thinking shifts in the following ways:
All-or nothing thinking. Everything is black and white.
Catastrophizing. The worst possible outcome will happen.
Labeling. Defining themselves in a manner that allows no other options. The brain is wired to see themselves or others in only one way.
Mind reading. Believing they know what others think of them.
Discounting the positive. Looking past the positive and only seeing the negative side of a situation.
Emotional reasoning. Believing something is true because it feels that way.
Personalization. Evaluating someone behavior in terms of something they think they did.
So how does someone change a lifetime of thinking–especially when they’re convinced they see the world the right way?
Admit you need to learn to see the world a new way. I talk about my own practical and spiritual journey out of cognitive distortion in my book The Silent Seduction of Self-Talk.
Become a student of yourself. Identify your cognitive distortions, and try to identify their source. Which ones are your favorites? Why do you default to this way of thinking–how are you trying to protect yourself?
Get a notebook and begin to evaluate your self-talk. What distortions do you believe about yourself? About others? About relationships? About your responsibilities to the world? About God?
Begin to talk to yourself with the same compassion and caring you’d show to those you love. Begin replacing the distortions with truth.
Instead of thinking about your progress in terms of success or failure, rate yourself on the steps you’re taking.
Ask trusted friends their opinion about whether or not your self-image and self-talk are realistic and healthy. Ask for their input about strengths, and engage their support in shifting your talk and your thinking.
Admit that you struggle with blaming yourself for external problems that you aren’t responsible for. Practice honestly assessing the true factors at work in situations.
Do a cost-benefit analysis. What are you gaining from negative, distorted thinking? In what ways could changing your thinking influence your life positively?
If trauma has held you hostage with negative thinking, consider the role that trauma therapy might play in moving you in a new direction in life.