What are Cognitive Distortions?

Sharing a recent blog by our youth- Gowri Anupama, a freshman in College.

Unhealthy thinking styles are what set the “thoughts” portion of the CBT triangle off balance and are know as "Cognitive distortions". Distorted thinking often leads people into a downward spiral which only makes things even worse. Something that I am very guilty of, I can categorize pretty much every negative thought that I have into one of the following categories: All or Nothing Thinking, Mental Filter, Jumping to Conclusions, Emotional Reasoning, Labelling, Over-generalizing, Disqualifying the Positive, Magnification and Minimization, Should/Must Statements, and Personalization. Each of these have adverse effects in their own ways, but most people encounter multiple distortions on a daily basis. There are ways to combat the harmful effects of each, but it is first important to understand what each of these really does. 

"All or Nothing Thinking" is also known as black and white thinking where a person is unable to see the gray area in a situation. Everything is seen in extremes, further promoting discouragement since there is no middle ground. This style of thinking makes it very likely to not meet expectations because the person is unable to see all the options to begin with. On the bright side, there is a way to cope with this style of thinking. There needs to be a shift of mindset to view thing on a dial with multiple options. This is called the continuum thinking spectrum. By seeing things on a spectrum, with multiple shades of gray, a person is less likely to be disappointed in the long run. 

The next cognitive distortion, "Mental Filter", clouds thinking very heavily. This unhelpful thinking style refers to seeing everything through a negative mental filter. In doing so, one is only able to pay attention to the negative types of evidence while ignoring any positives that are present. This tunnel vision casts a gray cloud over everything, reducing the likeliness of happiness in one’s life. In order to fight this, the only solution is to forcefully recognize and appreciate the positives in any and all situations. This seems very forced at the start, but it eventually becomes integrated into one’s own thinking style. 

Pretty much everyone is guilty of the next style of thinking: "Jumping to Conclusions". This distortion is divided into two specific styles, "Mind Reading and Fortune Telling". "Mind reading" refers to assuming what another person is thinking or going to do. "Fortune telling", on the other hand, is assuming the worst of the future and catastrophizing. Both of these involve trusting one’s first assumption and impression of everything, and it can negatively impact the actual outcome of the situation. By proceeding as if things are going poorly, the result will be poor as well. As a solution to this, mindfulness should be incorporated into daily activities. Staying in the present moment prevents people from ruminating about the future and making assumptions. When it comes to mind reading, the quick fix is communication. By gathering input from the other person, more realistic assumptions can be made.

    While everyone tries to make decisions with logical reasoning, "Emotional Reasoning" often takes over. Emotional reasoning equates feelings to facts in order to make emotional judgements. The mind is usually stuck to what a person is feeling at a given moment, so the instinct would be to react accordingly. By taking a step back in the moment and separating out logic and emotion at the moment, one can think more clearly. The concept of Wise Mind illustrates how every person has two extremes to their mind: the emotion mind and the logic mind. To achieve the ideal wise mind requires one to balance both of these sides of their mind, especially when making decisions. 

    When something happens, it is easy to place a generalized label on a person or thing. "Labelling" refers to placing that label based off of simply seeing one instance of a negative action. For example, calling oneself stupid just because you have failed one test is completely irrational. This causes a ripple effect based off of very little evidence and discourages the person. Similar to Jumping to Conclusions, this distortion can also affect the way the future plays out. For instance, calling a person stupid can induce that thinking in their own mind, making them less likely to work hard in school. One main solution to this is describing specific situations instead of generally placing a label on the person. That way, the specific situation can be fixed to avoid further solidifying a label. 

    "Over-generalizing" is a cognitive distortion that goes hand in hand with Labelling. With over-generalizing, one assumes or creates a pattern based off of just one event. This overly broad style of thinking enforces the idea that a specific problem is an everlasting issue. While a recurring event may be a lasting issue, it is unrealistic to assume that one event can correlate to a bigger issue. Words that are used with over-generalizing statements include “always” and “never”. For instance, saying “You never do the dishes” to a person just because they did not do the dishes once, is a false statement. All situations are not the same, so the best way to cope with this is by focusing on the present and staying specific when describing situations. In the above example, it is more realistic to say “You did not do the dishes today”, and it will more likely lead to the other person being cooperative as well. The outcomes are more favorable when over-generalizing is avoided. 

    "Disqualifying the Positive" joins together with the idea of a mental filter. With this distortion, joy is eliminated from the equation since all positives that have happened are completely ignored. This also makes any situation seem worse than it really is, and can affect the overall mood of a person. In order to eliminate this thinking style, one must forcefully look for the positive in a situation. By identifying these, the effects of some of the negatives can be lightened.  

    When things spiral out of control, some of the most common unhelpful thinking styles that seem to take over are "Magnification and Minimization". They both refer to looking at a situation in an out of proportion manner. Magnification most closely resembles catastrophizing, while minimization is like invalidating. In both instances, a person is likely to unfairly compare one situation to another, taking away the validity of a situation. Pitting your worst against someone else’s best is not a realistic way of looking at things since others have highs and lows as well. Another way of looking at this concept is making a mountain out of a molehill, or in some instances vice versa. To combat this, people have to see their own strengths as well as that of others. Validating both creates a more realistic environment that promotes success. For example, when someone compliments you by calling you beautiful, say “Thank you” instead of saying “No, I am not beautiful”. If everyone is able to do this, it increases the kindness that is spread around the world. 

     As people talk to themselves, they tend to use "Should/Must Statements" a lot, which sets up heavy demands that are hard to meet. These extremely critical words make it seem like one is set up for failure from the start. These demands tend to drive the situation to a negative ending by putting too much pressure on a person. These statements can be altered to be used positively. This can be done by replacing the words “should” or “must” with “choose to”. For example, instead of saying “I should do this project”, it is more effective. It also drives the person to follow through with the action by providing more confidence and a sense of choice. 

     Finally, one of the last cognitive distortions is "Personalization". This places blame on oneself for something that the person is not at fault for. Stemming from low self esteem, this reinforces any feelings of self doubt and questioning. The simple way to alter this is by being realistic on who to blame for a situation, or not focusing on placing blame to begin with. By bringing this realistic element in, it is easier to solve the problem at the root cause. 

     These 10 cognitive distortions are present in pretty much everyone’s daily lives. The important part is to recognize and identify this, then proceed to solve the distortions. None of these thinking styles are impossible to recover from, and it is important to remember that no one is alone in dealing with these. 

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