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Cognitive Diary Example


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The following is an example to help learn how to identify and change irrational thinking. It is best to read the articles defining the irrational styles of thinking prior to trying to identifying the styles in the example. It uses the format of the COGNITIVE DIARY CBT SELF-HELP app. Read: Understanding and Using the Cognitive Diary.

I Can't STAND It!

Event: Suffering from...(pain, anxiety, depression, trauma, loss)

Emotions: tormented, miserable, helpless

Distress Rating: 9--Feeling desperate

Thoughts: "I can't stand this! I'll never be able to survive this. It is so unfair. Other people don't suffer as much as I do. Bad things always happen to me--I guess I'm just unlucky.”

Can You Identify the Irrational Thinking in this Example? There are at least 3 irrational beliefs.

How Can You Change the Thinking? What is another way of thinking about the situation that won't cause the feelings of torment, misery, and helplessness?

The Cognitive Diary CBT Self-Help app helps you to determine some ways to challenge the irrational thinking. Once you have done that, it is important to read the rational challenges frequently until they automatically come to mind rather than the irrational thinking.


Irrational Beliefs:
1) Catastrophizing. When painful or traumatic events, suffering, or loss occurs, the natural human tendency is to catastrophize. Because emotions are stored in our brains as groupings of similar emotional experiences, when we are suffering in some way our memories tend to be more negative in focus. As a result, predicting the worst possible scenarios is a normal reaction. We believe that the suffering won't stop. And that there is no way to handle it. This is especially true with chronic types of problems like ongoing illness or pain.

Nevertheless, a normal reaction doesn't mean it is a beneficial reaction. Nor does it mean that it is a rational reaction. However, in many situations it could be temporary and a way of releasing emotions. If that is the case, it may not be necessary to challenge the thinking. But if the thinking is long-term it can have a number of negative consequences including making the situation worse. For instance, with chronic pain, anxiety, or depression, catastrophizing about the symptoms can intensify the symptoms. Also, the focus is on how bad it is rather than what can be done about it so possible positive steps may not be taken.

Therefore, challenging the catastrophic thinking can be an important step to change. For instance, even recognizing that the emotions or pain fluctuates can help a person see that it could be possible to cope. When people focus on how bad they feel, they don't notice there may be times when they don't feel as bad. Cognitive therapy tries to help people look at these times and to use them as building blocks. If someone examines what is different when they don't feel as bad they might see a pattern. Perhaps they were socializing with someone. Or, perhaps they took their medicine as prescribed and didn't try to "tough it out." Or, perhaps they were engaged mindfully in an activity. Whatever the reason might be, when a person begins to focus on when they don't feel as bad they have the opportunity to find some possible methods to help.

2) Personalizing. This person is comparing his or her situation to other people and believing that other people don't suffer as much or in the same way. Personalizing suffering often leads to some conclusion about the self. In this case, "I'm unlucky." Other times people may feel they are being punished by God or they may believe they are weaker than others. Whatever the belief, the personal comparison is the problem. If the person didn't personalize, they may be less likely to come to those conclusions.

Again, it is normal to try and find an explanation for things, so it is common to make these types of comparisons. However, it doesn't mean they are accurate. Recognizing that human suffering occurs and that even if it is not apparent in others, they still have events, illness, and loss in their lives as well can help reduce personalizing. By recognizing that everyone suffers you can see that it is not just about you.

Also, it is not fair to compare your insides to other people's outsides. In other words, you can see every aspect of your suffering and how difficult it may be to cope with it. But you don't see the struggle other people have--you only see the outcome. So if someone is suffering and you see them laughing and socializing, it may be easy to come to the conclusion that they are coping so much better and must be stronger than you. However, you may not see the depths of their despair when they are alone. Just as they may not see yours.

3) External Control Fallacy. The idea of being "unlucky" means that there is nothing that can be done about it. Luck is not something that can be controlled so it leads to feelings of helplessness. However, by recognizing that something is not personal, and therefore not a matter of personal luck, a person can begin to examine what can be done.

How Can This Thinking Be Changed?
"Even though this suffering may be bad it is not at the same level all the time. Let me keep track of how it varies and try to figure out the difference. I might find there is something I can do that can help. Other people suffer, too. Rather than comparing myself negatively, I can find out what helps them cope."

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