Thursday, July 07, 2011

July 7, 2011 – Unbending Our Thoughts

Brian Stabler is a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a lymphoma survivor. In a helpful 2004 article, he speculates that a good deal of the trouble we go through in dealing with cancer is a result of unrealistic or “bent” thinking. The technical psychological term is “cognitive distortions.”

What are some of these bent thoughts? Stabler explains:

“For instance, when asked, many cancer patients report that they believe cancer is a foreign invader substance, such as a virus. This underlies the common misconception that you can actually ‘catch’ cancer from someone else. Obviously, this distorted belief could work against optimal outcomes, because it encourages the patient to rely on others – as if medicine, and a doctor or nurse is all that is needed to make things better. Not so: the patient is the most important part of the equation, and must learn to deal positively with cancer.”

Stabler encourages a technique of dealing with destructive thinking that requires immediately identifying the presenting thought that caused the negative emotional state, then “sweeping” it so it can do no more harm.

He suggests a learning exercise in which we keep a piece of paper close at hand, divided into three columns. The first is labeled “SITUATION,” the second, “REACTION” and the third, “THOUGHT.” When you find yourself reacting negatively, he explains, make a note of the situation that precipitated it, then try to capture the thought you were thinking just before you became aware of the depressive or anxious or angry emotion that ensued.

Stabler suggests several common categories of distorted thinking:

1. Black and white thinking – this is the all-or-nothing style where everything is simple and concrete, and there are no shades of grey.

2. Catastrophizing – where an individual interprets even the smallest problem as a potential disaster and reacts accordingly.

3. Fortune telling – the tendency to believe that we know what the future holds, and it generally is not pleasant.

4. Emotional reasoning – the belief that the feelings you experience represent reality, as in, "I feel bad all the time, so this must mean that things in my life are pretty bad."

If just one or two of these thinking styles is present, a cancer patient could have a poorer life quality, increased stress, and perhaps even negative changes in the course of [the] illness. Research has shown that if patients learn to journal their thoughts, and actively begin to challenge and adjust their ‘hot thoughts’ and distortions, they can anticipate improvements in their quality of life. I've come to firmly believe that keeping psychologically fit is every bit as important as keeping physically fit.”

Because cancer is generally not caused by some foreign-invader virus or bacterium, but is in fact an erroneous response of our own genes, our patterns of thought may well have a great deal of influence on how successfully we manage to live with this disease. We can’t think ourselves well by utilizing our minds alone, but our thought processes do have something significant to do with our well-being. It’s all part of the healing process. Every little bit helps.


Anonymous said...



Ronni Gordon said...

Thank you for being so clear in the last paragraph in which you write that thought patterns can influence how well we live with the disease rather than writing, as many people do, that thought patterns can influence the outcome. It really upsets me when someone like Bernie Siegal writes that a positive outlook can improve outcome. That makes people think that if they don't do well, it is somehow their fault. I had a young, beautiful friend (in her 40s) who had the best outlook ever, yet she died of lung cancer.

Carl said...

Ronni, this is similar to Barbara Ehrenreich's point in her insightful book, Bright-Sided:
Positive thinking is only a part of the healing process. You're quite right in saying we shouldn't ascribe magical powers to it. I actually addressed this in a sermon not long ago: