Thinking errors: we all have them. They affect some people more severely than others. Individuals who struggle with substance abuse are particularly vulnerable to turning mild thinking errors into irrational thoughts (known as cognitive errors or distortions).
These distorted thought processes lead to intense emotions ranging from excessive hyperactivity/happiness to situationally inappropriate outbursts of anger. When this happens, the individual unknowingly isolates himself from members of society who view him as unstable.
Addiction Comes Next
What happens next isn’t a surprise. For several reasons — whether self-medication, stress or impulsivity — many of these individuals start using drugs and alcohol as a coping method. Although drugs and alcohol might seem like a temporary solution, they quickly become a primary source of relief.
The result of this thought process is none other than addiction. There are several types of thinking errors that play a powerful role in substance abuse and addiction.
Common Thinking Errors
Consider some of the following common thinking errors or cognitive distortions:
- The victim stance is a thinking error that employs a mindset of rationalization. The idea is that because you’ve been a victim of childhood abuse, a cheating spouse or any kind of negativity, you deserve the right to have a few (insert drug of choice here) every night to unwind.
- Black and white thinking, or polarized thinking, is one of the most common thinking errors, individuals with black and white thinking have an all-or-nothing perspective. For example, black and white thinkers might believe that they’ll “never get sober” or that a relapse is always imminent.
- People who struggle with personalizing fall into a habit of believing that other peoples’ actions, whether intentional or not, are aimed at them. These people tend to take everything personally, even when an event has absolutely nothing to do with them.
- Those with the perfectionist thinking error believe that they are totally competent in all they do. As a result, if they don’t immediately excel at something, they believe that it’s not by any fault of their own.
- Histrionic thinking. This type of thought distortion involves experiencing a negative or distressing event or situation and then overgeneralizing that to color their expectations of the future. For example, when being fired from a job they may come to think that they are unemployable, defective, or worthless.
- Emotional reasoning involves thought distortions where the individual allows their emotions to overrule their logic. Instead of using logical reasoning to explain why they are feeling down or feel badly about themselves, they validate the negative feelings as accurate, reinforcing them instead of attempting to overcome them.
These are just a few of the thinking errors associated with substance abuse and addiction. The mind is a powerful force in influencing the choices people make. When thought errors cause such disturbance that they lead to seeking drugs or alcohol to find relief, a substance addiction can result. Fortunately, our treatment team at Next Level Recovery can provide the type of research-backed treatment necessary for success.
How to Fix Thought Distortions
Alcoholics Anonymous has a term for cognitive distortions: stinkin’ thinkin.’ This perfectly captures the essence of the dysfunctional nature of thinking errors because a pattern of disordered thinking can set in motion the cycle of substance abuse.
So, how are thinking errors resolved? How do individuals in recovery reshape their thoughts from irrational distortions to positive, self-affirming thoughts? Here are some tips that can help to expose the thought errors for what they are, and to overcome them.
- Keep a journal. Whether you jot down a daily summary and describe the events and emotions experienced and the subsequent actions, or you utilize an app whenever negative self-talk threatens to derail your day, however you decide to record your moods is fine. The idea is to look for patterns of troubling thoughts and the resulting actions to increase awareness of the connection between disordered thinking and substance use.
- Lose the black or white thinking. Being stuck in the extreme black or white thought patterns can keep you exaggerating reality and becoming despondent. There is often a middle ground, a more balanced view of a situation or event that has happened. Train yourself to think about events with less polarity and more logic.
- Challenge the labels. Thinking errors can lead to irrationally negative definitions of ones self. Referring to yourself as “stupid,” “lazy,” “a loser,” or other such derogatory labels can reinforce the need to use a substance, to numb these negative feelings about self. Try isolating one of the negative labels you have assigned to yourself and questioning the validity of it. List 3 or 4 positive traits that negate the distorted label.
- Affirming self-talk. Why would you talk about yourself in a way that you would talk about someone you care about? Instead of thinking the worst about yourself and always expecting the worst, why not begin to talk to yourself in the same encouraging way you would to a friend. Positive self-talk is powerful, and if you practice it enough it can stop you from always putting yourself down.
These are a few new habits to practice in recovery as you learn how to value yourself.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
One of the most effective forms of psychotherapy for treating addiction is cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is a short-term therapy that focuses on both the cognitive (thoughts) and behavioral (actions) of the individual by helping them modify thought-behavior patterns that are keeping them trapped in substance abuse.
For example, someone may be convinced that they cannot function at a social function without alcohol, a classic thinking error, therefore use alcohol to calm their anxiety. CBT teaches them to exchange that irrational belief to a positive statement, such as “Of course I can enjoy the event without needing alcohol. I want to be clear headed and present to get the most out of the experience.”
Practicing the new healthy thought patterns learned through CBT can lead to improved actions. By replacing the disordered thoughts with rational thinking the individual has the ability to separate their thoughts from reflexive substance abuse. It takes time for the new thought patterns to become new habits, but when this is accomplished it can be an important coping skill used in recovery.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy
DBT is another behavior-focused psychotherapy that is highly effective in treating individuals with a substance use disorder. DBT focuses on the psychosocial aspects of treatment and recovery.
DBT centers on shifting negative self-messaging and self-criticism, common cognitive distortions that can lead to self-medicating with a substance, toward acceptance of self. DBT helps the individual shift negative self-messaging while encouraging improvement in four areas:
- Mindfulness. DBT emphasizes training the mind to be focused on the present moment. Clients are encouraged to observe, describe, and participate in the here and now without judgment.
- Interpersonal effectiveness. DBT guides participants toward more effective relationship skills, teaching new ways to interact with the people in your life. These skills include some assertiveness training, conflict resolution, and problem solving.
- Emotion regulation. DBT helps individuals learn how to manage their emotions without having to reach for a substance. These skills include learning to properly identify emotions, increasing positive emotional events, and reducing vulnerability to the effects of emotions and feelings.
- Distress tolerance. DBT teaches individuals to better manage distressing situations using crisis survival strategies that include self-soothing, distracting, considering pros and cons, and improving the moment.
DBT can be especially helpful for individuals with a dual diagnosis, such as alcoholism and depression or anxiety, as it helps them learn to regulate emotions and mood swings more effectively.
How we think about ourselves can influence how we act and feel. Negative thinking directed at ourselves yields negative actions. The self-loathing that results from cognitive distortions, or thinking errors, threatens to keep an individual locked in a cycle of substance abuse as an attempt to escape from the painful thoughts. Contact the team at Next Level Recovery today and allow us to partner with you to help free you from the damaging effects of thinking errors. Call today at (888) 759-5846.