Sunday, 2 November 2014

Breaking Negative Thought Patterns

The university experience can be isolating, competitive and demoralising. That is why it is important to go in with a thick skin, good coping strategies and a positive, but realistic, outlook. This way you'll be able to thrive and attract like minded individuals to surround yourself with. This can make university a positive time in your life both academically and socially.

I am currently a postgraduate, working on a PhD and I recently found out that around 40-50 percent of all grad students experience emotional or stress-related problem that significantly affects their well-being or academic performance. Those are some scary statistics, especially considering those are only the ones that have gone through the effort of telling someone about their problems. Many people just sit and suffer in silence.

I personally went through my own meltdown between my second and third year of undergrad, and I know how easy it is to assume that there is no point talking about it because no-one could possibly understand what you are going through, and how uniquely difficult your situation is. I also know what a load of excuses those are. If half the student population is experiencing anxious or depressed episodes, then there is a good chance talking about it will do more good than harm, at the very least it will make you feel less isolated.

The unwillingness of most people to seek professional help is also a major problem. People seem to live under the conviction that psychologists and councilors are for the weak or in the worst case for the insane. This is completely untrue. Everyone has certain things that make them irrationally guilty, jealous, upset, anxious or angry and could benefit from minimalising the affects of those negative feelings on their lives.

I have been dealing with a number of friends who are suffering from mixes of anxiety, depression and eating disorders. All having to do with a negative thought process and unproductive coping mechanisms. These often lead to cynicism, bad self-images and distrust of others. The justification often used is that they are just being realistic that thinking positively would be to delude themselves. I disagree, I believe that those negative thoughts are more delusional than a healthy dose of optimism.

I know all to well that snapping out of these patterns is more difficult than it seams on paper. You really have to completely alter the way you think and it takes a lot of work, but it is not impossible, and ultimately you will be better for it. It takes a supportive group of friends and/or family, some who push you, some who are gentle but all of whom will be there to catch you when you fall. In my case my professional team, councilors, psychologist, doctor and dietician were an excellent help providing both moral and practical support.

The main thing I learned was that setting small achievable goals, each time pushing yourself a bit further is key to getting out of a mental crisis. Also allowing yourself to slip up sometimes is important. But these slip ups need to be used a learning experience. You can't get away with just making excuses for yourself and going back to square 1 each time. When the crisis gets really bad it is often best to avoid too many other commitments. Taking some time off to recover will often help more in the long run, rather than attempting to juggle recovery with jobs, essays or committees. It takes a lot of effort and a relaxing caring environment to really make a long term change.

I personally found CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy extremely helpful, but different people get over negative patterns in different ways: traveling, art, music, ... the options are endless.
As long as it helps you externalise and analyse your thought processes. Notice triggers, patterns and consider new ways of coping. I used to keep a diary of both physical and mental reactions to certain events, those two are often more intertwined then we think, and improving our well-being on both accounts is essential to leading a more positive life.

For more serious long term crises (anorexia, depression, etc.) there are often multiple phases of recovery. Initial denial of course: the negative patterns have become so commonplace that they seem rational and natural, they are not yet perceived as problems in need of fixing. Then comes realisation: the point when the patterns start being recognised as irrational. A word of warning to this phase, though highly important to recovery it is also very deceptive. Knowing something is wrong and acting on it are two very different things and it is easy to plateau in this phase. Often others will not understand why at this point you are not yet getting visibly better. This is because there is an internal war occurring in your head between the rational and irrational. Part of you wants to change but the other part realises how difficult this will be and would prefer to just stay the way it is. However difficult it may be, once you accept the fact that you are struggling to recover on your own it is very important you get help. Which is also phase three. Once you are able to accept help, you are finally on your way to active recovery. If all goes well you will start feeling more like you belong in your own skin and eventually you'll be able to look back and see the crisis as a moment of your life that taught you something about yourself and made you stronger.

Some patterns of negative thinking that could lead to such crises and you should probably nip in the bud now are:

- All-or-nothing thinking: 'anything less than perfection is failure'
- Black-and-white thinking: 'I can't be a contributing member of society unless I am a lawyer'
- Disqualifying the positives: 'life is just a series of disappointments'
- Negative self-labeling: 'if people knew what a failure I was they wouldn't like me'
- Catastrophising: 'everything will go horribly wrong'
- Mind reading: 'I am sure all my friends hate me because they didn't invite me for dinner'
- Shoulda-woulda-coulda: 'I should be acing every exam'
- Excessive need for approval: 'I need someone to love me to be happy'
- Disqualifying the present: 'I'll relax when I am done with university and have a job'
- Dwelling on pain: 'If I just keep thinking about what went wrong maybe I'll feel better'
- Guilt trip: 'Everything is always all my fault I am a terrible person'

These are all common pessimistic ways of seeing the world. All are equally irrational and all can be refuted. Realising that you control how you think, that you got into the negative cycle and you have the power to get out of it, is very important. No-one made you think this way, if you have surrounded yourself with negative people who are not supportive of your attempt to turn to a more positive outlook, maybe it is time to look for a new support group, your old friends will come around when they are ready.

Like I said before it is difficult to get out of a negative thinking pattern, it takes time, effort and a bit of outside help, but in the end I believe it is most definitely worth your while.