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PhD Self-Care Project: Thinking Distortions

Most of us postgraduate students find ourselves caught in particularly stressful periods in our candidature when we’re more susceptible to distorted thinking. These may be around formal milestone dates such as the Major Review and Annual Review, or when we’re waiting for a decision on a journal manuscript or an ethics application we’ve just submitted. Whether it’s holding on to unrealistic expectations of ourselves, or repeatedly comparing ourselves to our peers, or even selectively focusing on the negative, our thinking soon becomes distorted and unsympathetically exaggerated.

Here are some of the thinking distortions I experience when I’ve said ‘yes’ to too many things, when I am waiting on a result from a submission, when I have not had enough sleep, or when I focus too much on things I cannot control.

Catastrophising
This is the kind of distorted thinking I do when I place unnecessary pressure on myself and build up the needless anxiety. On reflecting, I realise that I frequently do this around conference presentations. Of course, it is important to be well-prepared and do the best I can, but I exaggerate the importance of my talk above others. I feel like if I stutter, or lose my place during my speech, that members of the audience will never be able to forgive me and no one will even want to collaborate with me on research projects. This type of distorted thinking also keeps my thoughts focused on everything that possibly could go wrong for me.

Negativity
Maybe it’s because our brains protect us, but sometimes negative thoughts are more salient than the positive ones. This kind of thinking, constantly looking at the negatives, renders me in fear and does not help me to remember the strengths that I possess, which I can actually use to change the situation I am in. Negative thinking keeps me ignoring the good things and, on the dark side, ignoring the many positive aspects of a particular situation.

All-or-nothing
‘I’ll never get published,’ or ‘I’ll never finish,’ are only two of my favorite all-or-nothing statements. I truly limit myself by not giving any space for the middle ground and just completely condemning myself to ‘I’m hopeless and that’s it’.

What are the types of negative thinking that you do when you’re stressed, exhausted, or worried about something? The first step for me was to examine my thoughts, identify the unproductive thoughts, and then create ways to combat these distorted thoughts. I’ll check back in on the next post!


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