Changing the Course of Automatic Thoughts

I am releasing an upcoming audio series (for members) focusing on the mental aspects of body composition. I anticipated it being around two hours, but it is turning into quite an epic recording. I took additional time to record a bonus on cognitive behavior and its relation to body composition.

Cognitive Distortions

This post previews one of the most important areas which is learning to identify, and hopefully alter, your negative automatic thoughts. Below is a list (the basis of which originated from David D. Burns) of the top 10 mental distortions we experience throughout our daily lives. Take a moment to read through them. You might be surprised how they apply, not only to your body composition but to your life in general.

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking

The Problem: It’s pretty self explanatory, but incredibly powerful. When you imagine one person not liking you, it can turn into everyone. If you cheat with one meal, the whole day or week can become a bust. This doesn’t only apply to actions, it applies to thoughts as well.

Albert Ellis first presented the idea of irrational beliefs. Here are some examples:

I cannot be happy unless everyone likes me.
If I do what is expected of me, my life will be wonderful.
Bad things don’t happen to good people.
Good things don’t happen to bad people.
In the end, bad people will always get punished.
If I am intelligent (or work hard), I will be successful.

The Solution: While it may not be easy to fight these thoughts and perhaps we can’t help our initial feelings and reactions, we have to change how we consciously react in our all-or-nothing behavior.

2. Overgeneralization

The Problem: One negative can turn into everything being negative. This is different from all-or-nothing thinking because it doesn’t have to relate to the same negative thoughts or actions. For example, if you get into a car accident, you automatically assume your diet is shot for the rest of the day. If you are creative and prone to catastrophic thinking, you can convince yourself that your relationship is going to fall apart; you get extra bonus points if you think the person you hit is going to sue you and you’ll end up homeless.

The Solution: When bad events take place, remind yourself it is one bad event. This one event does not have to shape the entire course of your life. And most importantly, it doesn’t have to end negatively.

3. Mental Filter

The Problem: You focus and dwell on one thing and one thing only. It can be weight loss, your family, your job, etc. Whatever it is, nothing seems more devastating than this one “thing.” It rules your life and steals your happiness thunder.

The Solution: Sometimes you have to forcefully and consciously change your thoughts as they happen. Work on focusing on other things—your goals and dreams. Keep a list of ideas of things to think about when you find yourself getting caught up in yourself.

4. Disqualifying the Positive

The Problem: Good things couldn’t possibly happen to you, and even if they do, you brush them off with negative thoughts or by focusing on potential or conjured negatives. If you receive a compliment from your boss, you think, “He praises Craig more.” If you lose two pounds, you think, “Greeeat, two pounds. 59 more to go, and those were mostly water anyway. Whoo f**king hoo.”

The Solution: No matter how small, celebrate your successes. If negative thoughts creep in, bounce back with positive ones.

5. Jumping to Conclusions

The Problem: You don’t know what the outcome is going to be, but you are already preparing for the worst. There are two aspects of this: fortune telling and mind reading. If you believe it will happen, then it will. And it always seems like that self-fulfilling prophecy mostly applies to negative things.

So, you can see all of the future and read everyone’s minds, and you know that eventually you are going to be sad, lonely, and on the verge of killing yourself—before you even start something.

The Solution: If you must fortune tell or mind read, try to make it positive or, at the very least, realistic. Also, try to keep in mind that as scary of a thought as it is, we have no way of knowing what tomorrow holds. All we can do is try to plan for it the best we can with logical decisions and positivity.

6. Magnification or Minimizing

The Problem: Making something a little worse are we? Someone says, “Are you okay? You don’t look like you feel well,” and you rework this in your head as if they said, “OMG, are you dying? You look like you are dying and are quite ugly! Run to the hospital now, run!”

The Solution: People don’t think about you as much as you do. In some ways, you are practicing narcissistic behavior when you do this and you need to realize that the world, both positively and negatively, doesn’t revolve around you. Start taking events or what people say (compliments or criticisms) for exactly what they are, instead of what you make them in your mind.

7. Emotional Reasoning

The Problem: You think the presence of your negative thoughts means that they must be true. Have you ever looked at a sharp object like a kitchen knife and imagined it flying out of control and hurting someone? Have you followed that thought with, “Why did I just think that? I must be a horrible person to think something like that!?” You aren’t, and in fact you are so normal that we must all be “horrible” people. The same applies to dieting when you think the following thoughts. “Today I just want to cheat! Omg, why do I think that, why can’t I be strong like everyone else? Why am I the only one who has these problems? I must be weak. I will never be able to do this.”

The Solution: First, you need to accept the fact that everyone does these things, even the really weird ones. Nothing is wrong with you; our minds are constantly working and there are a lot of hours to fill in a day. Second, you need to derail these thoughts when you notice them happening. Use positive talk to replace them whenever you can.

8. Should Statements

The Problem: Thoughts like these…

“They should understand.”

“I should be able to do this.”

“They should be a better friend to me.”

The Solution: The only things that exist on the other side of “should” statements are guilt and anger toward yourself or others. Instead, focus on the reality of what you did and have done.

9. Labeling/Mislabeling

The Problem: You must be a bad person because you did “x.” You must be crazy. You must be untrustworthy. They must be a bad person. They must be irrational. They are a liar. Feeling the need to label everything and then set it aside makes it pretty hard to work toward change, doesn’t it?

The Solution: Avoid making blanket statements, even in jest, about your personal character or the character of others. Contrary to popular belief, there aren’t as many “bad” people in the world as you may think. You certainly don’t have to be one of them. Try to mentally move away from using labels and more toward identification of individual situations.

10. Personalization

The Problem: Everything is ruined because of you. No one in your family gets along, because of you. If it wasn’t for you, things would be better for other people. If only you worked harder and did things better, everyone else would be happier.

The Solution: This is usually tied in with people pleasing. I believe we should care about people, but it should be in the right ways. The best way to treat people well is to treat yourself well. Because in the end, everyone’s journey is their own to do with what they will. Focus on your journey.

Take Home Point

This takes work. Being happy takes work. Sure there are the lucky few who live in a state of ignorant bliss, but most of us spend our time searching for how to not feel fear, how to not live in fear, or how to be better than we think we are. Take time today to really think about the messages you are sending yourself, and see if you can’t rework your thoughts to promote a more constructive and positive outcome.


  1. Lori
    August 9, 2010 at 6:53 am

    Great post, Leigh. It comes at a good time for me, too. I had a rather jarring dream recently (no, not the Oprah one) and have been a bit rattled by it since. I’ve found that I’m snacking out of nerves when I didn’t used to snack, and it’s slightly derailed me the last few days. Nothing damaging, but enough that I take note. Today’s a new day and a new chance to not let it bother me.

    • Leigh Peele
      August 9, 2010 at 2:18 pm

      Dreams can be pretty shaking. If this happens more with a deficit you can try to take melatonin before bed. Even if you don’t have a problem falling asleep it can help with deeper sleep. Since dreams (and our memory of them) are triggered more by lack of deeper sleep, this can help.

      The other thing you can do is practice quick wake ups. Being someone that suffers from extreme nightmares you learn tricks to help you stop dealing with them emotionally as soon as possible. There is also research that suggests if you don’t think about your dream within 15 mins of waking you can pretty much erase it taking place. This has its pros and cons because if you want to go back to sleep right away, it doesn’t really work. For me though, I can’t sleep again or at least for an hour, so I might as well not be tortured while awake. So when I have really bad ones and I wake up I literally jump out of bed and start to get involved in something right away and keep my mind clear and don’t think about it. In 5-10 mins a lot of times I can forget the dreams or at least the string or events to where it just chopping images. It also gets out the anxiety because you literally move it out of you.

      Don’t know if its a recurring problem for you, but something you can think about in the future. I have nightmares most nights and a few times a week I will have the real bad ones. It does mess with you and your day (or days).

      • Lori
        August 9, 2010 at 3:27 pm

        Thanks, Leigh. I’ll give those tips a try. I’ve always had pretty wacky dreams; the horrific ones are fairly rare.

  2. Sonia
    August 9, 2010 at 7:08 am

    Leigh, you have read my mind (no pun intended).

    I’ve been struggling with the fact that I’ve just lost weight that I never thought I’d lose and and am still not ‘happy’. After your post I’m now reflecting on the fact that my boss told me today I’d done a really good job on something and I pretty much dismissed him out of hand. I wonder what the problem is…

    • Leigh Peele
      August 9, 2010 at 2:19 pm

      Good job on seeing that with yourself. You would be surprised how many people completely shut off the notion that they would even do it in the first place.

  3. Brit
    August 9, 2010 at 8:12 am

    What a interesting topic! I have never heard of any of this, but I recently have seen people discuss cognitive therapy and the Beck Diet book. Leigh, would you recommend that book?

    • Leigh Peele
      August 9, 2010 at 2:22 pm

      I am familiar with Aaron and Judiths work and research. I have read the books that are used to teach and help actual therapists rather than the Beck Diet Book. I don’t remember what it says about nutrition, so I can only speak of their work with Cognitive Therapy. I do think sometimes they try and “market” it out in ways that aren’t realistic and they at times have some conflicting views but overall I would stand by reading their research and writing in regards to that. But like I said, I can’t remember about the diet stuff. I have read so much stuff recently it starts to muddle together and would have to revisit it specifically. Perhaps it will be something I review in the future.

  4. cassondra crosby
    August 9, 2010 at 8:25 am

    Awesome post Leigh and I cannot wait till the audio is released! Thanks : )

  5. James
    August 9, 2010 at 10:14 am

    Great post. I know we have discussed this before, but if it wasn’t for Leigh talk and then self talk, I wouldn’t be where I am now. These kind of post make me thankful for that.

  6. Sarah
    August 9, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Hi Leigh,

    When will the audio be released?

    • Leigh Peele
      August 9, 2010 at 2:29 pm

      It’s basically done we are just trying to work the timing with the challenges, audio, cookbooks, etc. Lots of background stuff but I can say it will be before the end of August.

  7. Amanda Helms
    August 9, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Great post. I struggled with depression growing up (and still have my moments). It’s probably only been the past five years or so that I’ve truly started believing that we have to choose to be happy, that it doesn’t just happen. Honestly if someone had told my teen self that “Happy takes work,” I would’ve said screw you, but it was something I wish someone had said. Or I take that back–people did tell me to “think positive,” but I wish someone had acknowledged that thinking positive is work and it isn’t always easy, but that the benefits are more than worth it.

    Anyway, I’m also looking forward to the audio!

    • Leigh Peele
      August 9, 2010 at 2:36 pm

      I was pretty cynical myself when I was a kid. I certainly saw the world as people who have nice lives and people who don’t. I had a very skewed understanding of the world and the people that lived in it. Then I got to know them. When you get to know so many different types of people and walks of life you learn really quickly how alike, scared, and fragile we are all. It completely removes your ability to have a “my pain is greater than yours” complex or to feel as if you are in it alone.

      Happiness does take work and everyday. You can certainly get “positive” lazy. You can let your emotions get to you and just become apathetic about trying to feel better. That is when you have to acknowledge you choose to feel the way you feel a lot of the time. With that control also comes power to feel better, anytime you want if you just try. It isn’t about hinky cults or not living in reality. I wish that there wasn’t the stigma to positive thinking that there is something because it makes it hard for people like myself to take it seriously from the get go.

  8. Thrasher
    August 9, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Great post Leigh! Happy takes work….true indeed! And this is something we need to be told, or at least, it’s something I had to be told, and taught, and I need to hear it again from time to time or else I get stuck in my old, negative thought patterns and traps.

    Nothing is wrong with me – thank you for telling me this!! I can all too easily get affected by people who call me strange, or crazy for doing/thinking the things I do. But I have come to realize that it’s because I had surrounded myself with people who give up, and prefer to complain and blame instead of taking action to change themselves, or their own lives. Once I recognize this, and see it for what it is, I can change the voice in my head, and make better choices in terms of who I spend my time with.

    Thank you for this post! I will be referring back to it often 🙂

    • Leigh Peele
      August 9, 2010 at 2:40 pm

      The people you are around make a difference like you wouldn’t believe. You have to, guilt free, choose to be around people that are going to elevate you, not drag you down. Now, I am all for taking the time to help and be there for people. I am not a lazy friend, I am a good friend. That being said, sometimes you just don’t fit in peoples lives at the same time or at all. And that’s okay.

      I am not really a fan of burning bridges, but I have no problem throwing up a detour sign.

  9. Andreas Zourdos
    August 9, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Nice article Leigh , psychology is very underrated when it comes to dieting. And congratulations for your blog.

  10. Chris Miyachi
    August 9, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    I’m sorry that series of pictures of your dog in different hats cracks me up every time. That dog is beautiful!

    Great post and I am looking forward to the audio. Now that I have all the knowledge I need I’m turning more to the cognitive issues for my own weight loss and I’m glad you are adding this kind of material.

  11. Jesse
    August 11, 2010 at 2:14 am

    Oh Leigh you are so wise! I am always getting unexpected surprises when I visit your site. I come here looking for diet and training knowledge but often your insights into the way we humans bumble along in the world is what really hits (not meaning to in any way diminish your truly awesome diet expertise:) ).

  12. bigmike55
    August 16, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Great post. I’m looking forward to the audio series.

  13. Andrea A
    August 17, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Dr. Burns is phenomenal. I highly recommend his books, as well as Neil Fiore’s. Both have very proactive and “stop blaming your past” approaches to living well and better.

  14. ursula
    December 12, 2010 at 11:43 am

    Great article Leigh 🙂 Defininitely words of wisdom to live by! I can relate to each and every one of these distortions. I heard of them over the years, but never really read about them in depth, and im soooooooo glad I did. Although I say I would never give up, I recently found myself in a situation that I thought was out of my control, but thanks to this article :), I will now help myself. In case ur wondering….I have been married to a man for 5 years from another country, and I trusted him whole heartedly. He is visiting his country now for 6 weeks, which is turning out to be a 4-5 month trip, again! Resources r very low. I am hearing from him less and less, he told me he has something to tell me that is bad for him in his country, but cannot tell me over the phone, so I need to wait till he gets back! I have a 12 year old son, and Im just going out of my mind and have been searching for ways to think positive and relate/change my inner self ! But anyway, thanks again Leigh. Looking forward to anything more u will post :).

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