Throughout our day, it’s common to have an internal dialogue in our head chronicling the best next decision or how to respond to a situation. That “inner voice,” as we often call it, tends to track what we’re doing, thinking and feeling at any given moment. And that voice in our head is incredibly powerful because it can either encourage and lift us up or it can let fear and anxiety creep in, depending on the messages we tell ourselves.
As you face the inherent physical and emotional challenges of caregiving for a loved one with dementia, your mindset and attitude take on a role unlike any other, so it’s important to recognize when your thoughts are leading you down a rabbit hole of negativity – and what intentional steps you can take to create a healthy outlook instead.
What Are These Negative Thoughts in My Mind?
Distorted thinking, also sometimes referred to as twisted thoughts, are cognitive patterns that cause us to view reality inaccurately or misinterpret a situation, usually in negative ways. Often, these thoughts aren’t based on fact or reality.
There are many different types of distorted thinking. As you read through some of the more common twisted thought patterns listed below, ask yourself if they feel familiar.
- All or nothing: This can be a polarizing “always and never” mindset that life is either going perfectly or it’s a disaster. My loved one didn’t eat the cake I made, so he must be mad at me. We all want things to go perfectly, but putting unrealistic expectations on situations and people puts too much weight on yourself.
- Catastrophizing: Often an unintentional coping mechanism, this tendency assumes the worst will happen and makes problems larger than life.
- Discounting the positive: We all have disappointing experiences at times, but when we actively dwell on the negative, we deny ourselves the joy of our accomplishments and the good things that happen.
- Emotional reasoning: In this situation, we assume that because we feel something, it must be true. It creates an “emotional truth” that often conflicts with the perception of truth.
- Jumping to conclusions: Just like it sounds, this is when we judge something without having all the facts, which can often lead to poor decisions causing more harm than good.
- Labeling: When we generalize by taking one characteristic (or behavior) of a person and apply it to the whole person. I lost my patience with my loved one, so I must be a bad caregiver.
- Overgeneralization: Always. Never. Everybody. People who overgeneralize using this type of language tend to get angrier than others and they often express that anger in unhealthy ways. This type of thinking and language matters because once you say something “always” happens to you, you start responding to the pattern of events instead of the one event that just happened.
It’s important to keep in mind that we all have some twisted thoughts from time to time, but if these thoughts are reinforced or continue without being challenged, they can cause increased anxiety, depression, difficulties in relationships and undue stress.
Change Begins With Recognizing Distorted Thinking
When we repeatedly engage in these distorted thought patterns, we don’t get the chance to better ourselves, and we miss opportunities to grow and learn from our mistakes.
The encouraging news is that we can choose to reframe our outlook at any time. Think of your thoughts, actions and behaviors, and emotions and beliefs as all being connected in a continuous circle. When you intentionally shift your thinking, you change how you feel and this, in turn, will influence your actions and decisions.
Practice Positive Self-Talk
What would it look like to “turn off” some of the negative self-talk in our “inner voice” and turn our thoughts into a more positive, uplifting narrative? It’s not always easy but just like learning any new skill, it can be developed with practice.
- Learn to spot negative thought patterns. Ask yourself what language you’re using. Be on the lookout for words like always, never, impossible, needs to be perfect, failure or ruined. “Mom is being impossible; she always fights me during meals. I’m never going to get better at this; I’m a failure and I ruin all of our visits together.”
- Describe or write down the situation that led to your thoughts … with just the facts. Think about what specific event or interaction triggered your thoughts and try to capture what emotions you have: frustration, grief, despair or feeling overwhelmed. “When I visit during a meal, Mom won’t eat no matter what I try. Other family and staff don’t have difficulty getting her to eat. It’s frustrating, embarrassing and I feel inadequate.”
- What are the results or consequences of your feelings? “Mealtime is difficult for me. I don’t understand why this happens, and my feelings of inadequacy make me not want to visit.”
- Challenge the initial thoughts. Are you a failure as a caregiver and son/daughter because of this one situation? Are you really the only one she doesn’t eat for or are you assuming based on just what you see?
- Tell yourself to cancel negative thoughts and choose a new thought using positive language. “Mom is having a harder time during meals these days. She’s not fighting me; she’s fighting the disease. To make the most of our time together, I’m going to visit at a different time of day that might be better for both of us.”
Give Yourself Some Grace
Replacing negative self-talk with positive messaging takes time. Try taking a few deep breaths to clear your mind. Meditation can also be a beneficial tool to help reduce negative thoughts.
On days when you feel like you need an extra measure of encouragement on this journey, remember:
- Changing a distorted thought pattern is a process – the goal is progress, not perfection.
- It takes daily discipline and time to change thought patterns.
- Live in the present. You can’t change the past nor predict the future.
- Truly believe you do have the power to control your thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
Remember, you don’t have to go through this alone. Some days are better than others, and some days are just more difficult. On your journey toward better self-care and positive self-messaging, lean on dependable family members and talk to trusted people who can help you see different perspectives and shift distorted cognitive patterns toward healthier thoughts.