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by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell

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Black and white thinking

You may have noticed that someone who is incredibly angry seems incapable of seeing wider viewpoints or following a rational discussion about what is annoying them – this is an example of black and white ‘all or nothing’ thinking and occurs when the emotional limbic system inhibits access to the rational neocortex. To put it simply, the brain gets too ’emotionally aroused’ to think rationally. Black and white thinking is a feature of all highly emotional states, including depression and anxiety.

In order to deal with feelings of anxiety and depression, it is important to recognise when black and white thinking is occurring and learn how to get back to your rational observing self and lower your stress levels.

Emotional arousal makes you stupid

When you get anxious in any situation your brain instinctively starts to prepare for the fight or flight response (an innate reflex action that enables you to get away alive from potentially fatal situations like an approaching hungry lion) and begins to set off high emotional arousal levels in the lower, primitive brain (the amygdala and the limbic system) to lock all available attention on the threat and enable you to make quick decisions to run or fight as fast possible. High emotional arousal in the lower regions of the brain obstruct the higher cortex, inhibiting and simplifying logical thought in order to react in the fastest way to possible danger. This is the mechanism behind black and white thinking, and is sometimes not appropriate to the less life threatening anxieties of modern life.

If you were walking through a jungle and suddenly heard a roar and a loud crashing noise coming towards you, you would immediately react by running for your life, rather than standing still, weighing up the consequences and waiting to see if what you heard was a rampaging angry elephant or not! Waiting for logical thought to kick in is too slow in urgent survival situations so your amygdala would rather make the embarrassing mistake of running when there is no danger than making one fatal error in judgement that might cost you your life. In these moments of very high emotional arousal thoughts become oversimplified and ‘black and white thinking’ happens.

Your amygdala sometimes does its job too well as it knows that one mistake could be fatal. However, in some areas of modern life, over simplified thinking is not as useful as it once was when we lived in constant fear of our physical survival, and black and white thinking can become destructive as our anxiety limits our perspective and stops us from being able to clearly see our situation.

Black and white thinking

Black and white thinking is occurring whenever you find yourself saying or thinking things like this:

  • “My whole life is a disaster from start to finish”
  • “I can’t do anything right”
  • “Everyone hates me.”

These statements are very likely to be untrue, so take a moment to do something to calm your amygdala and limbic system (see 7/11 breathing technique) and don’t let emotional black and white thinking trick you into thinking thoughts that would make anyone feel bad!

Follow this link to learn how to challenge your negative thoughts and control your worrying and anxiety >>