Many of us struggle with negative thinking that holds us back from achieving our goals in life, and this applies as much to health and fitness as it does to other areas in our lives. Using ideas from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we examine some common unhelpful thought patterns that may be interfering with your fitness regime and suggest strategies for overcoming them.
A bit about CBT
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is all about the relationships between our thoughts, feelings and actions. One of its central tenets is that negative moods and feelings can usually be traced to specific negative thoughts about ourselves or about a particular situation. Examining and challenging these negative thoughts can help people to feel better.
We all have particular personal thinking biases that arise from our temperament and our upbringing and act as a filter that causes us to see the world in a particular way. The trouble is, we treat these biases as reality, not allowing for the fact that they might be inaccurate. And then we tend to behave in a way that confirms the biases as true.
Common cognitive distortions
Cognitive distortions are thinking errors that reinforce negative thoughts and feelings. They're not real and they're not accurate, but we treat them as though they were. We're all prone to these sort of errors because they reflect the human brain's tendency to take mental shortcuts, but when they get out of hand they can cause serious emotional problems, particularly depression. Here are five of the most common ones:
Filtering is a process whereby we block out any positives and focus solely on the negatives of a situation. This sort of mental filter means that we are unable to perceive a complex reality, as we're too busy focusing on everything that is going wrong.
2) Black and white thinking
This is sometimes referred to as polarised or all-or-nothing thinking. It's all about the tendency to categorise things as being either completely good or completely bad, roaring successes or abject failures, without allowing much room for any middle ground. This kind of thinking is characterised by terms such as “always,” “never,” and “every.”
3) “Shoulds” and “oughts”
Sometimes thinking is characterised by lots of strong views on how the world should and ought to be and what onseself and other people should and ought to do. Having these sorts of rigid rules about life is restrictive and puts a lot of pressure on people when the world around them and they themselves do not live up to the stipulated standards.
A tendency to imagine the worst possible outcome (or often the worst impossible outcome) of a situation is referred to as catastrophising. People prone to this sort of thinking error spend so much time imagining worst-case “what if” scenarios that they can't relax or perceive the positives of a situation.
This is the tendency to come to a general conclusion about the whole world and everybody in it based on a single incident or a minor detail. Even the most trivial incident will be seen as part of a never-ending pattern of negativity and hopelessness.
Are cognitive distortions interfering with your fitness?
Knowing about cognitive distortions can help you to troubleshoot your attitudes to your fitness regime. It's worth taking time to examine your thoughts and to try to figure out whether there are any particular thought patterns that are holding you back from achieving your goal. Can you spot any distortions that fit the list above?
For example, do you view your health and fitness solely in terms of problems that need to be fixed, rather than appreciating any strengths you might have (filtering)? Are your fitness regime and diet informed by rigid standards of what you should and ought to be doing, so that you despair of ever being able to meet your own standards (should and oughts)? Does a single missed gym session lead to you thinking there's no point in making the effort because you'll never see a positive result anyway (catastrophising)?
Dieting is another area where people are prone to negative thinking. A single slip-up can be magnified until it becomes an insurmountable obstacle, and the success or failure to meet weight loss targets offer fertile ground for back-and-white thinking and catastrophisation.
In this way, cognitive distortions can interfere with you leading the active, healthy lifestyle that you're aiming for. It can feel like there's just no point even trying.
So now what?
You've taken the time to think about how your thoughts may be holding you back from achieving your fitness goals. Now what? The next important step is to recognise them for what they are – namely errors and not accurate reflections of reality – and to challenge them. Even just labelling these sorts of thoughts as they arise can be an important first step in overcoming them. When you find that you are mentally beating yourself up about having missed a gym session or binged on chocolate cake, it can help to take a step back and observe to yourself that you are seeing the world entirely in terms of shoulds and oughts or black-and-white thinking.
Once you've started to observe and label these sorts of thoughts, you can move on to challenging them. Ask yourself questions that will help you to examine whether your thoughts are a true reflection of reality. What is the evidence for your thought? Are there any other ways of seeing this situation? What would you say to a friend who came to you with these concerns?
Don't let a negative mental autopilot get in the way of looking after your body!