Have hope: You can avoid the “always” and “everything” traps

When bad things happen or when failure finds its way into your life, it’s easy to get caught in a spiral of negative thinking that leads to hopelessness, helplessness, and inaction. When setbacks happen, you might find yourself stuck in two different (but related) thinking traps.

A thinking trap is when you interpret events, situations, and behaviors in ways that lead to poor performance. The “always” thinking trap happens when you believe bad events will last forever and you have little or no control over them. The “everything” thinking trap is when a single bad event spills over and you believe it contaminates all other areas of your life. Sometimes you might find yourself thinking one of these thoughts, but often these thinking traps go hand in hand.

Here’s an example to illustrate. Your unit is getting ready to deploy in 60 days. During a training exercise, you feel terrible pain in your back and find out you have several herniated disks. Some “always” and “everything” thoughts you might have if you were in one of these thinking traps include the following:

  • “Of course, my back goes out just before we’re set to deploy. This kind of stuff always happens to me.”
  • “If I can’t deploy, then I’ll no longer be fit for duty.”
  • “I’m never going to get promoted in a new MOS. I won’t be able to pay for my daughter’s college.”
  • “My back is only going to get worse. I don’t have what it takes to manage this kind of pain.”

These traps fuel each other and can lead you to feel sad and anxious. When these thinking traps go unchecked, you might draw negative conclusions about bad things happening that might not be accurate.

How to avoid “always” and “everything”

When you find yourself in “always” and “everything” thinking traps, here are some actions you can take to get yourself out of them:

  • Ask questions. Try asking yourself a few questions to help stop the negative spiral going on inside your head. The answers will provide a more accurate picture of what’s really going on.
    • Always: “What could change?” and “What can I control and influence that might lead to a better result?”
    • Everything: “What does this affect and not affect?” Think about what you can do to contain the spillover. Try to identify only the specific areas of your life that could be affected.
  • Take a break. Thinking traps are much more common when you’re tired. It’s harder to recognize and manage unhelpful thoughts when you haven’t slept well or been eating well. Stress can have a negative impact on both nutrition and rest, so it’s important to take a tactical pause and make rest and recovery a priority.
  • Connect with others. Your thoughts can be your worst enemy. If you find yourself stuck inside your own head, sometimes the best thing to do is reach out for help. Other people might have a much more objective picture that can help you out of your thinking traps.

Bottom line

When challenges arise, it’s important to remember that “this too shall pass.” The “always” and “everything” thinking traps can damage your mental health and well-being. To combat these common thinking traps, it’s a good idea to ask questions, take a break, and connect with others to keep you filled with hope and moving forward toward productive action.

Resources

Basha, S. E. (2015). Rumination, cognitive distortion, and its relation to anxiety and depression symptoms. Indian Journal of Health & Wellbeing, 6(11), 1049–1061.

Gilbert, P. (1998). The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 71(4), 447–463. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8341.1998.tb01002.x

Guglielmo, S. S. (2014). Cognitive distortion: Propositions and possible worlds. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 33(1), 53–77. doi:10.1007/s10942-014-0202-7

Jager-Hyman, S., Cunningham, A., Wenzel, A., Mattei, S., Brown, G. K., & Beck, A. T. (2014). Cognitive distortions and suicide attempts. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 38(4), 369–374. doi:10.1007/s10608-014-9613-0

Meyers, L. L., Landes, S. J., & Thuras, P. (2014). Veterans' service utilization and associated costs following participation in dialectical behavior therapy: A preliminary investigation. Military Medicine, 179(11), 1368–1373. doi:10.7205/milmed-d-14-00248