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Coping with Maladaptive Thoughts and Thinking Patterns

Maladaptive Thoughts

Everyone experiences negative thoughts at times, but not everyone knows how to properly cope with them. Some people experience maladaptive thoughts often and, as a result, develop maladaptive coping strategies. Maladaptive thoughts are intrusive, distorted, irrational, and negative. People with anxiety and depressive disorders tend to have frequent intrusive and maladaptive thoughts. Negative thoughts, especially ones that are frequent, have a direct influence on people’s moods and behaviors. Some people attempt to self-medicate with alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs, which can lead to substance abuse and addiction. Effectively and properly coping with these dangerous thoughts and thinking patterns can lead to newfound healthy coping strategies, which can also be a protective barrier against developing a substance abuse disorder.

Distinguishing Maladaptive Thoughts from Pessimism

Some maladaptive thoughts are harder to recognize than others; often, there is some overlap between pessimism and negative thinking. Pessimism refers to one’s outlook and explanatory style. Maladaptive thoughts, on the other hand, refer to specific generalizations or self-talk that is negative, distorted, and irrational. The difference can be seen in the following example:

Pessimism:    I will probably fail my next math test since I have not passed one yet.

Maladaptive Thinking: I will fail my next math test, just like I fail at everything.

Pessimism, unlike maladaptive thinking, is not usually irrational. It is a perspective that uses highlights negativity, but not in a self-damaging way.  There are some theories that posit a healthy amount of pessimism is more functionally adaptive than being highly optimistic. The greatest distinction between pessimistic thoughts and maladaptive thoughts is their degree of malleability; pessimistic thoughts are not rigid, fixed thoughts, they can adapt to positive outcomes. Maladaptive thoughts, however, involve negative self-talk, which is resistant even when faced with a positive outcome. Generalizations and absolute words, such as always, never, everybody, nobody, and negative self-talk, such as I am a loser, I hate everything about myself, I will never get better, are easily recognizable examples of maladaptive thinking.

How to Reframe Maladaptive Thoughts

Effective coping strategies for maladaptive thoughts are similar to strategies used in anxiety attacks. When faced with maladaptive thoughts, the person can use techniques such as reframing for immediately coping, and cognitive training to develop healthy thought patterns to change maladaptive thinking. The reframing technique is very effective in coping with generalizations and negative self-talk.

Reframing Technique:  Noticing a maladaptive thought in the form of a generalization or absolute word, the person replaces the generalizing word with the word “some”, and follows with a positive alternative sentence.

Example:  Every time I try, I fail.   Sometimes when I try, I fail.

Positive Alternative: Sometimes when I try, I succeed.   

The reframing technique is an excellent way to cope with maladaptive thoughts, but cognitive behavior therapy with a trained therapist may be the most effective way to learn lasting and effective coping strategies that can help reduce the occurrences of persistent maladaptive thinking.

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