I recently ran across a word I haven't heard for a while: irrational.

Like so many terms coined by psychiatry, it's been misunderstood and misapplied. I used to think that someone who behaved irrationally was crazy. Not so.

A thought is irrational when it's illogical or unreasonable AND triggers emotional stress. This definition clicked for me.

I took it to mean that not only do you feel stress when you react with an automatic thought pattern that triggers fear, but you're also stressed when and BECAUSE your thoughts aren't logical or reasonable.

Wow. I never thought about it that way before. If this is true, then I can use logic and reasonableness as additional tools to identify and unplug the stress component of negative thoughts that roll around in my head.

This is great news for me, because I used to think that feeling scared or anxious was a sign of a weak character. While I don't believe that any more, it's still a big relief to know that most of my stress came from thoughts that were illogical or unreasonable. My character is just fine. All I need to do is employ more logic and reason.

What causes irrational thoughts? Think about your patterns of reacting. When you encounter a new or unexpected situation, is your first thought usually fearful?

Fear happens when your amygdala gets triggered. Your amygdala is all about big scary emotions, not logic. (There are several posts about the amygdala on my blog.)

And remember, fear isn't about facts. Fear happens when you put a negative spin on a situation. In other words, your interpretation of the event causes your anxiety.

Take a moment to pinpoint your patterns of irrational thinking. Specifically, what habitual thoughts indicate that you've left logic and reason behind you?

Here are three types of irrational thinking that I often see with my clients.

1) Overreacting with an exaggerated interpretation of your experience (a.k.a. borrowing trouble). For example, when your boss is grumpy, you jump to the illogical conclusion that it means you're going to get fired. Every leap in logic is a jump to a likely false conclusion.

Like Chicken Little clucking, “the sky is falling,” you overreact to your interpretation of the situation, feeling upset before there's a valid reason to be. There could be dozens of other causes for your boss's foul mood, none of which has anything to do with you.

2) Exaggerating the importance of an experience. For instance, you'll feel anxious if you think: I can't bear being alone. This is an unreasonable exaggeration.
What's true is this: you can bear loneliness. Sure, it's uncomfortable and frustrating, but you'll survive.

3) Presuming the worst isn't logical or reasonable because you waste energy (and lose power) when you get upset about a situation that hasn't happened yet—and might not ever happen.

This attitude is perpetuated in our society by two prominent beliefs. One, that it's smart to fear anything that's unknown or uncertain (we call it being cautious). And two, responsible adults worry about bad things that could happen to them.

Another reason you'll have irrational thoughts is when there's a gap in your reasoning. In this case, you'll think you're acting rationally when you're not. This often happens when you try to rationalize avoiding doing something you know needs to be done.

In relationships, it's when that subtle inertia takes over: I really don't want to date this person any more, but I won't tell them tonight because we have plans for a fun night out. Or because their dog just died. Or, it's raining.

Even the flimsiest excuse will enable you to duck doing the dirty deed. Your strong desire to avoid the discomfort you'll feel if they get upset trumps your reasonable desire for honesty.

There's no need to keep channeling Chicken Little. Follow the thread of logic. Identify the reasonable response.

How Adept At Adapting Are You?

You're familiar with the theory of evolution: survival hinges on the ability to adapt. This applies to every species on our planet.

The ones who are the most adaptable—the most able to quickly respond to changing conditions—are the most healthy and the most likely to thrive over the long term.

Have you connected this theory to the effect that your thoughts have on your ability to adapt? Fear-based irrational thinking makes adapting to your ever-changing world harder and more stressful.

So the more adaptable attitude you can have is to embrace—not resist—new situations. Facing new issues head-on is more adaptive and therefore more beneficial to you over the long term than running away from, minimizing, rationalizing, or ignoring them.

I wouldn't be your friendly neighborhood life coach if I didn't offer a few techniques for adopting adaptable attitudes.

Here are my top four strategies for developing your own style of adaptive thinking:

• Become aware that you create 100% of the anxiety and fear you feel, and that they're not just unnecessary, but are detrimental to your long-term well-being. As an alternative...

• Make the most of the potential for learning and growing offered by each new experience. Use this technique to re-program the old pattern of scaring yourself silly by agonizing over amygdala-driven scenarios of catastrophe, mayhem and doom.

• Focus on the good things that might happen as you become a master adapter: you'll take responsibility for creating your experiences. You'll learn to avoid frustration, improve your coping and communication skills, and create better relationships.

In other words, as others are thinking themselves sick (and unhappy), you'll be thriving.

• Recognize that the worst thing that could happen rarely does. Instead, what usually happens is that you subject yourself to tons of unnecessary stress. You're temporarily inconvenienced. You deprive yourself of pleasure while you're over-focused on overreacting to the issue.

When you're stuck in patterns of fear and doubt, the worst thing that often happens is that you experience yourself as ineffective, are temporarily rejected by others, and have to live with unwanted consequences—none of which are fates worse than death and all of which are transient.

How could you adjust your adaptive strategies to achieve greater success?

Author's Bio: 

Judy Widener is a Certified Life Coach and author of Power For A Lifetime: Tools You Customize to Build Your Personal Power Every Day Of Your Life. You can sign up for Discovering Your Values, a 5-day e-course at no cost at http://www.myinnerfrontiers.com. Her passion is assisting her clients to discover what is most important to them, then to create more balance and satisfaction in their lives. Empowerment Life Coaching is a comprehensive program that teaches clients simple ways to build their personal power and overcome obstacles to achieving their dreams. Judy has coached more than 600 people over the past 13 years. Her website is http://www.myinnerfrontiers.com.