We experience a constant stream of fleeting, evaluative thoughts or images throughout the day. These are called automatic thoughts, and they are often not intentional, but arise spontaneously. Our minds are constantly flooded with these thoughts; we may have thousands of them on a given day:
- “Why is this lady talking so loudly?”
- “I love this song.”
- “I need a car wash.”
These thoughts race through our minds very quickly, often without us realizing it. When we are aware of them, we tend to accept them uncritically. This is where the trouble starts. Our thoughts are not always accurate.Often, we slip into thinking errors or cognitive distortions without knowing it: Biased or inaccurate thoughts that can lead to unpleasant and unhelpful feelings and behaviors.
Mistakes in thinking and health anxiety are the sweet spot
Research shows that people with health anxiety tend to have a lot of distorted thoughts. When someone has health anxiety, they may experience a trigger (for example, physical symptoms or bodily sensations after learning about someone else’s frightening health condition), which they then explain. This is often when thinking errors come into play.
One type of thinking error is black and white thinking, also known as all-or-nothing thinking. This involves viewing situations in absolute black and white categories, rather than taking a more balanced approach and viewing things on a continuum. In the context of health anxiety, it involves seeing oneself as perfectly healthy or terminally ill.
Take Erica, for example. She was driving home after receiving the results of her medical exam. The doctor told her everything was normal and she was in good health. Of course, it put her in a good mood. She bounced on the freeway, sang loudly, smiled at her commuters, and even happily welcomed a few extra cars into her driveway. life is good. After all, she is healthy.
But, hours later, at home, she noticed her eyes were red. All previous relief and gratitude began to drain away. she thought, Look? That’s why I shouldn’t be so comfortable with the idea of my own health.’cause it turns out I’m really not. It’s as if she views her health like a light switch: on or off. There is no middle ground. She is either a model of health, or a sick old bag. Did the Pap smear result come back? health category. New mole? Diseases.
ideas are not facts
The key to learning to think in a healthier, more accurate way is acknowledging that just because you’re thinking about something doesn’t make it a reality. Sometimes ideas are accurate. But other times, they’re inaccurate, or even harmful. It’s crucial to question the validity of your thoughts rather than just accepting them as facts.
start a new journey
The first step in improving unhealthy thought patterns is to understand the type of distorted thinking you are engaging in. At the beginning of therapy, I help my clients become familiar with the most common cognitive distortions or thinking errors. They then begin to develop a “mind-sense,” where we have them record their thoughts in a thought register to identify their own unique thought patterns.
Once they develop an awareness of their ideas, they learn how to challenge those ideas through Socratic dialogue. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be very effective in treating health anxiety.
Remember this: you are not alone and you can get help.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.