March 3, 2020

Maladaptive Thoughts: Lies Your Brain Spin

Anxiety & Depression
Mental Health & Wellbeing

Do you see the glass half empty or half full? This is a probing question that we often use in our society to simply gauge if you have a negative (empty) or a positive (full) outlook on life. I think about my own experience as a child and learning the definition of pessimistic and optimistic and thinking to myself, being a pessimist is hard work! However, as I lived life more, I came to understand a few things.

First, a negative view can sometimes be a temporary benefit for an individual. Second, if we have positive or negative self talk enough, over time we adapt to this. Lastly, perception is reality. This read will explain maladaptive thoughts, coping strategies, and techniques. Enjoy!

Maladaptive Thoughts Explained

Okay- so what exactly is maladaptive thinking? explains maladaptive thinking as a belief that is false and rationally unsupported. These thoughts are usually formed as a way to protect us from a triggering or traumatic circumstance. Experiencing the loss of a loved one, job loss, breakup, or even dealing with an addiction can be things we want to shield ourselves from. This is commonly referred to as “defense mechanism.” Incompetence, despair, sadness, feeling inadequate, and anger are just a few emotions that can arise out of a negative experience. The “defense” thought that we have, results in a feeling that naturally leads us to react or behave in a manner that justifies our feelings. The problem with this is that over time we establish a pattern of negativity that is used to (irrationally) validate us.

Common Maladaptive Defenses:


“The world is ending because….” This defense is assuming that the worst will happen. This thought pattern can be applied to current or future situations. A person who is catastrophizing might make a small mistake on their job and believes they will be fired. They may not have even completed training yet and already believe they will be terminated—again, assuming the worst.

Fallacy of Change

“If you would just change the way you ______ (fill in the blank), I would be so happy!” This distortion believes that in order for us to be happy, the people around us must change their actions to accommodate. This is predominantly seen in relationships and is a huge red flag for selfishness and foundation of codependency. 

Emotional Reasoning

“If I feel it, then it is true.”- Emotional reasoning is accepting your feelings to be reality. If this person feels overwhelmed from a stressful day, then their problems are unsolvable. Another example can be, “I feel lonely”- therefore no one cares about me and I’m not capable of being loved. The red flag for this distortion is that it can result in obsessive compulsive disorder. This individual becomes fixated on their irrational feelings.

Discounting the Positive

“Negative Nancy” – In this process the person ignores positive feedback and accolades for an accomplishment and can only see the negative point of view. This individual struggles with accepting compliments or positive re-framing.

Coping Strategies

Cognitive restructuring is learning to identify unhealthy thoughts, evaluating them, then correcting them, and aligning the necessary actions accordingly. The benefits of this strategy are: it is practical, teaches us to be accountable for our feelings, improves communication, develops an optimistic outlook, and aids in sobriety/ recovery maintenance. Listed below is step by step instruction on how to restructure the maladaptive thinking patterns.

  • Step 1: Pause- Imagine yourself pressing a pause button
  • Step 2: Identify the trigger
  • Step 3: Pay attention to your automatic (default/immediate) thoughts
  • Step 4: Describe your emotional reaction and scale how intense it is
  • Step 5: Creative alternative thoughts
  • Step 6: Re-Rate your emotional reaction and intensity based upon new (alternative) thoughts.

Call to Action

We all have experienced feelings, memories, and thoughts can be hard to deal with. If you notice recurrent feelings of being “stuck in your head,” or repeatedly using defense mechanisms, and have an pervasive pessimistic outlook on life, please feel free to reach out to a therapist near you! Life happens and will continue to happen each moment that you live, be intentional and choose a life worthwhile.

“You can’t control what happens, you can control your attitude toward what happens to you and in that you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you- Brian Tracy”

Written by therapist Sharda Wright

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