Unhelpful Psoriasis Thinking
The other day my wife, Lori, and I needed to make a last-minute trip to San Francisco. With San Francisco about ninety miles away it already takes almost two hours with reasonable traffic. That day, however, the traffic proved unreasonable. I could see the Bay Bridge just a few miles away, but cars ahead flashed red brake lights. I immediately thought it would take another hour just to get to the bridge. That thought set off a small chain reaction in my mind.
I first complained to Lori how much I dislike driving to San Francisco. I began to fret that we would never make it on time to our destination. My mood darkened as my heart raced. Three minutes later traffic picked up again. False alarm. As I settled back into the passenger side seat, I realized how one unhelpful and negative thought could ruin a trip, and even a day.
Unhelpful, negative thinking isn’t just for traffic and driving situations. Those of us living with psoriasis might relate to how thinking about psoriasis impacts mood and attitude. I especially struggle with my thoughts when faced with a difficult psoriatic flare. Another instance could be when I’m fatigued and tired from managing medications, doctor visits, or therapies. Social situations, such as when I catch someone staring at my skin, or flakes speckling my dark clothing, can turn my attitude negative.
Until I saw a therapist a few years ago, I didn’t notice how my thoughts affected me. I would characterize my thought life during that time as hostile to self, intense, prone to half-truths, and skewed. Time in counseling taught me that not all my thoughts are equally valid. With some thoughts I even need to re-examine them to see just how much they are founded on reality and truth.
I do find living with an unpredictable, often discouraging chronic condition like psoriasis, needs a bit of realism. I overheard a conversation where a person with a different health condition declared they don’t subscribe to optimistic thinking. I understand how turning a truly negative situation into a positive in my mind might not be honest or authentic. But, at the same time, I’ve found awareness of my thinking helpful and positive when it corrects overly negative thinking.
Here are three kinds of unhelpful thoughts I’ve uncovered in my experience with psoriasis, and how I tackle them.
To overgeneralize is to take one piece of evidence, such as an observation or an event, and extrapolate it to a conclusion or pattern. For example, when I was in college I felt afraid to tell prospective dates about my psoriasis. One of my female friends mentioned that having skin lesions could turn women away. I took that to heart and assumed no one would want to date me.
Taking one rejection or insensitive comment and making it into a general statement led me to feel despair that I would face rejection the rest of my life. That thought fed into the negativity I felt about myself with psoriasis. It proved false, though. I’ve been married over twenty years to someone who understands what it’s like to live with chronic health conditions.
I find myself overgeneralizing about my health condition in other ways too. If one medication doesn’t work well, I begin to think that no medication will ever be effective. Or if my last flare lasted longer than I expected, that all flares will last months.
People use labels to identify, describe, or classify an object or a person. Labeling boxes for moving, books in a library, or inventory on shelves assists in finding or categorizing items. But when someone uses a label for a person, that label often simplifies and diminishes the person. Labeling can be just as damaging when I label myself.
As a child, I experienced bullying for psoriasis and my ethnicity. Over time I internalized those labels. “You are stupid” became the thought that I must be stupid. “You’re ugly” because of your skin lesions eventually turned into feeling unattractive to others. Not too long after I began to label others too, another unhelpful thought pattern.
Now I catch myself when I use labels without first thinking about what they mean. That I’m a person with psoriasis, or a psoriatic, is true enough. But if that comes to mean anything untrue, such as I’m ugly or unlovable, I address that thought.
Seeing something as bigger than it is
Even though I ultimately didn’t go into a science profession, I enjoyed science in school. I especially loved looking through lenses. Lab days using microscopes opened the world of what I could not otherwise see. I just needed to remember that what I saw through a microscopic lens was not as big as it appeared to be.
Distorted thinking is like a lens that makes something bigger than it is as with a microscope or a magnifying glass. When I place extra attention on an area of my life, such as my skin, I can make what’s happening bigger than it really is. It’s not uncommon for me during an outbreak of psoriasis lesions to think my whole body will be covered with psoriasis in a matter of days. From there I worry I might be hospitalized, unable to function. All these thoughts can come from one bad day of skin inflammation.
A couple idioms I learned for this unhelpful thinking style are “making a mountain out of a molehill,” and “blowing something out of proportion.” The opposite can easily happen as well—minimizing and making something smaller than it is. I remember when I had a fever for a few days and just figured it was a cold that would go away. It turned out to be full-blown flu that needed treatment.
Either way, I’ve discovered that this kind of distorted thinking usually doesn’t help the situation, and often leads to incorrect conclusions and reactions. Becoming aware of how I think about myself and psoriasis, then reflecting about how I think, ultimately impacts my mood for the better.
Food for thought for those of us who strive to live a full and active life with a psoriatic, or any other health, condition.