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Minimizing successes and magnifying failures? Change your distorted thinking

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Some things are not debatable. Rain falls from the sky. Elevators go up and down. Orange traffic cones are orange. But because we interpret the world through our experiences, a lot isn’t so definitive.

The boss might say, “Good job,” and we wonder why they didn’t say, “Great job.” We see someone looking in our direction and they seem angry, so we believe that they’re mad at us, and no other explanation makes sense.

What’s happening is that we’re distorting our experience, jumping to conclusions, mind reading, and going to the worst-case scenario. When we do this, we shrink our successes and maximize our “failures,” and because it can be an automatic process, it’s hard to tell when it’s happening. “You don’t know you’re wearing magnifying glasses,” says Dr. Luana Marques, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

So what can you do to see things more clearly and with a more balanced perspective? It takes practice and a willingness to tolerate discomfort, but as with addressing any problem, it starts with awareness.

What’s happening when we magnify failures and jump to negative conclusions?

We like to process information quickly, and we use filters to help do that. If we believe, “I’m no good,” all words and behaviors that support that contention just make everything easier.

“The brain doesn’t want to spend energy trying to fight that,” Marques says. And the brain responds depending on the distortion. If something causes anxiety, say from a curious look or comment, the limbic system is activated and we’re in fight-or-flight mode, hyper-focused on the threat, not thinking creatively or considering alternative, less threatening options.

But sometimes, there’s no threat in play. We’re just thinking, probably overthinking, when we question our abilities and minimize our accomplishments.

So what can you do about it?

Label the type of thinking distortion

It helps to define our distortions, the common ones being:

  • Catastrophizing: Taking a small incident and going to the worst-case scenario.
  • Black-and-white thinking: Seeing only all-or-nothing possibilities.
  • Jumping to conclusions: Assuming what will happen rather than waiting to see what will actually happen.
  • Mind reading: Assuming what someone is thinking without much evidence.

When you label it, you can better understand and recognize what your go-to distortion is, because “we tend to do one more than another,” Marques says.

After that, it helps to take your emotional temperature by asking: Am I stressed? Am I sweating? Is my heart pounding or my breathing shallow? It brings you more into the moment and it allows you to think about what you were doing that brought on the response, such as, “I was trying to guess the outcome.” It’s another way to pinpoint the distortion you tend to favor, she says.

Challenge the distortion

Whichever distortion it is, you want to examine your assumption by looking for other evidence. If you question your boss’s reaction to you, ask yourself: What does my boss really say? What does this person say about other people? Have I received raises and promotions? Am I given good projects?

An easy trap with distortions is that they’re plausible. A person who is mad at me would give me a look. A person who hated me wouldn’t text me back. Maybe so, but think of five other possible explanations, Marques says. This exercise engages the prefrontal cortex, which takes you out of the fight-or-flight mode and expands your thinking. You’re then problem-solving and not solely keyed on one option.

You also want to ask an essential question: is this thinking helpful? You might realize that all your thinking/wondering/worrying does is make you anxious. Gaining that presence might be enough to get you off the path of distorted thinking. “Asking and answering the question about your thinking pauses the brain, and you potentially see the world differently,” she says.

Being balanced and kind to ourselves

As you examine and attempt to control your distortions, be mindful of how you treat yourself. Self-criticism is a really easy trap to fall into, but try talking to yourself as you would a friend. Better yet, imagine you’re speaking to a child. Your language would be considerate, supportive, and you wouldn’t use words such as “stupid” or “dumb.” This approach also shifts you into the detached, third person. “You get out of your head,” Marques says. “We’re cleaning our magnifying glasses a little bit.”

Lastly, realize that you’re not looking to switch your attitude from “I’m unworthy” to “I’m super-great.” That’s just trading one extreme for another. All you want is to counterbalance your distortion, then let it go. Countering thinking distortions is a lot like meditation, where you practice acknowledging your thoughts without getting hooked onto them.  “You don’t have to magnify or minimize.” Marques says.

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4 immune-boosting strategies that count right now

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It’s winter, as a glance outside your window may tell you. COVID-19 is circulating at record levels across much of the country. Keeping our immune systems healthy has taken on new importance, as many of us hope to ward off flu and winter colds as well as worrisome variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, whether Delta or Omicron.

Not surprisingly, marketers are taking advantage of our concerns. A whole cottage industry is devoted to chewables, pills, and powders that claim to “boost” or “support” your immune system. Some people even claim that healthy eating and vigorous workouts are all you truly need to avoid getting sick. But are any of these claims true?

The best strategies for staying healthy

I asked Michael Starnbach, professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, for his advice on steps that can help us stay in good health this winter.

“Vaccination, skepticism of any other products claiming immune benefits, and staying away from places without universal masking are the best strategies,” he says. Here’s why these approaches count.

Get vaccinated

When it comes to improving your immune response, getting the COVID vaccine and booster shot, along with other recommended vaccinations, is best. Think of vaccination as a cheat sheet for your immune system. When a viral invader makes its way into your body, your immune system prepares to fight. But first it has to figure out what’s attacking, which takes time — time that allows the virus to keep multiplying inside your body.

A vaccine introduces the immune system to the invader ahead of time and allows it to develop a battle plan. So when the virus does show up at the door, your immune system can react quickly, which may mean no symptoms, or at least preventing serious illness. A booster shot is a refresher course to keep those lessons fresh.

While it is possible to become infected even if you are vaccinated, your immune system is primed to clear the virus more rapidly, so the infection is far less likely be severe or life-threatening. “We should get all available vaccines and boosters so that if we do get infected, we have a better chance of having a mild case,” says Starnbach.

Be skeptical

Any number of vitamin formulations and probiotics claim to boost or support your immune system. And while there is a grain of truth to some of those claims, the big picture is that they often don’t work. For example, vitamins do help immune function, but really only in people who have a vitamin deficiency — not in an average, healthy adult.

Probiotics also hold promise. This mini-universe of organisms living in your gut called the microbiome does play an important role in immunity. But experts don’t know enough about that role to create a product that can manipulate the microbiome to enhance immunity. That may change over the next decade — but for now, view probiotic claims with a healthy dose of skepticism, says Starnbach.

Mask up

Ultimately, nothing is better at keeping you well than avoiding exposure to a virus altogether. Wearing a mask isn’t on anyone’s favorites list, but it can help reduce the risk of spreading COVID (and some other viruses) to people who are unvaccinated, including children who aren’t yet eligible for the shot, and people with immune system deficiencies who don’t get adequate protection from the vaccine, says Starnbach. Masks are most effective when everyone around you is wearing one. “We now know clearly that the best way to prevent the unvaccinated from becoming infected is by indoor mask mandates,” says Starnbach.

Practice good health habits

But what about exercise and good nutrition? Do they have a role in supporting your immune system?

The answer is yes. Strategies to improve your overall health are never wasted. Healthy people are more resistant to disease, and often fare better if they are infected. Good health habits can help your immune system operate at its peak. Exercise and good nutrition aren’t the only habits that can help. You should also try to get consistent, high-quality sleep and manage your stress level. Lack of sleep and chronic stress can impair immune function.

But if you hope to avoid COVID-19 and other viruses, these strategies should come in addition to — not as a substitute for — vaccination and other protective measures.