We all have negative thoughts from time to time, but when these thoughts become distorted and pervasive, they can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Cognitive distortions are patterns of biased thinking that distort our perception of reality, leading to negative emotions and behaviors. These distortions are irrational and often involve making sweeping generalizations, jumping to conclusions, and hyper-focusing on negativity. When cognitive distortions become a part of day-to-day life, it becomes harder to recognize when it’s happening.

It is important to recognize that cognitive distortions are common. It’s something everyone experiences from time to time. We have all fallen prey to self-doubt or catastrophic thinking in situations where it’s unwarranted. However, continuous cognitive distortions that trap oneself in a constant loop of negativity can become deeply entwined with our sense of self, and they can harm our relationships, careers, and overall quality of life.

However, with the help of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), we can learn to recognize and challenge these cognitive distortions, replacing them with more positive and balanced thinking. CBT is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that has been proven to be effective in treating a wide range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this blog post, we will explore some of the most common cognitive distortions and how CBT can help individuals overcome them.

Here are some of the most common cognitive distortions and how CBT can help overcome them. Some of these distortions come from Dr. David Burns’, a prominent name in the psychology field, 1989 book, Feeling Good Handbook.

1. All-or-nothing thinking: This is when we see things as black or white, good or bad, with no shades of gray in between. From this viewpoint, situations, people, and behaviors sit on a spectrum of extremes. You are either a good person or you’re the worst person ever. Getting less than a perfect score on a test means you’re a complete failure. CBT helps us recognize that reality is rarely so cut and dried, and encourages us to find the middle ground between extremes. For example, instead of thinking “If I don’t get a perfect score on this test, I’m a complete failure,” we can replace that thought with, “I may not have gotten a perfect score, but I still did my best and can learn from my mistakes.”

2. Overgeneralization: When we take one negative experience and assume it applies to all situations, creating a self-victimizing pattern where everything feels like defeat. For instance, if you get nervous during a job presentation and fumble your words, afterward you might think to yourself, “I always mess up everything. I can’t do anything right.” When dealing with these feelings, it’s important to look for evidence to the contrary. If we failed a job presentation, CBT encourages us to challenge this by looking at times when we were successful in other areas and recognizing that failure in one area doesn’t define us as a person.

3. Mental Filtering: Related to overgeneralization, mental filtering focuses solely on the negative aspects of a situation, ignoring any positives. If your friend once made a comment you perceived as negative, mental filtering would cause you to focus only on that one comment, ignoring years worth of positive comments and actions. 

4. Disqualifying the positive: This is when we discount positive experiences and accomplishments, thinking they don’t count or are irrelevant. Individuals who engage in this type of thinking may struggle with low self-esteem and may find it difficult to acknowledge their own strengths and accomplishments. Consider people who struggle to take compliments. While they may appear humble, it’s possible that they don’t acknowledge any positives within themselves. 

5. Jumping to conclusions: This cognitive distortion involves making assumptions or drawing conclusions without sufficient evidence or information. Often, this involves assuming that you accurately know what others are thinking. For example, a person who assumes that someone is angry with them without asking them directly may be engaging in this type of thinking. We challenge this by looking for evidence to support our thoughts. For example, if we assume someone is angry with us without any evidence, we can instead try to check in with them and get their perspective.

6. Magnification and minimization: This is when we exaggerate the importance of negative events and minimize the importance of positive events. CBT helps us see the reality of a situation and recognize that our emotional reaction may be out of proportion to the event. For example, instead of thinking “I made one mistake, and now I’m a total failure,” we can recognize that everyone makes mistakes and focus on what we can do to learn from it and do better next time.

7. Blaming: When we assume that others hold responsibility for how we feel, it is called blaming. It’s everyone else’s fault I am lonely. You make me feel bad. I would do X if you didn’t do Y  These are some common refrains that come from blaming others. Blaming gives people intrinsic power over you and assumes that you have no ability to change your own life, which only stokes the feeling of hopelessness.

8. Personalization: This is when we take responsibility for events that are outside of our control. Often, this leads to feelings of guilt as we assume that we are the cause of bad things occurring.

9. Catastrophizing: This cognitive distortion is related to jumping to conclusions, but is more extreme. Individuals imagine the worst possible outcome of a situation and assume that it is inevitable, no matter how improbable. Often, people spend their time stuck on “what-if” scenarios that don’t rationally line up: My child didn’t answer because there was an accident. I wasn’t invited because everyone hates me and secretly hopes I die. This type of thinking can lead to intense feelings of anxiety and may interfere with an individual’s ability to problem-solve effectively.

How Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Helps Stop Cognitive Distortions

In all of these cognitive distortions, the most common solution is taking a step back and evaluating reality with a positive lens, however, this is easier said than done. When we have been stuck in a negative loop for so long, it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

This is where a mental healthcare professional and CBT can become valuable in helping you learn how to deal with these distortions. CBT helps individuals recognize and challenge their negative thinking patterns and replace them with more balanced and positive thoughts. Through this process, individuals can develop better-coping strategies and improve their overall mental health and well-being. 

Here are three techniques CBT therapists might ask you to employ during therapy:

Stepping away:

In order to learn how to gather one’s thoughts, it’s sometimes important to learn how to step away from a situation. Doing so gives us a chance to look at it when emotions aren’t running high and we can accurately perceive reality.

Identifying Negative Thoughts:

When the negativity has become normal, it’s hard identifying it as such. CBT therapists help individuals recognize how these thoughts contribute to their negative emotions and behaviors. 

Challenging Negative Thoughts:

Once negative thoughts have been identified, the next step is to challenge them. CBT therapists help individuals identify the evidence for and against these negative thoughts and encourage them to consider alternative explanations.

Creating Balanced Thoughts:

This means helping them see situations in a more objective and realistic way. By acknowledging the positive aspects of a situation, individuals can reduce the impact of cognitive distortions and develop a more positive outlook.

Developing Coping Strategies:

Finally, CBT involves helping individuals develop coping strategies to deal with negative thoughts and emotions. This may involve learning relaxation techniques, problem-solving skills, or stress management techniques. By developing these coping strategies, individuals can better manage their negative thoughts and emotions and improve their overall mental health and well-being.

The Takeaway

A cognitive distortion is a negative view of the world that can significantly impact our mental health. Becoming aware of these patterns is the first step, but it can still be difficult to accomplish alone. If you are interested in seeing how cognitive-behavioral therapy can deal with these distortions, I offer mindfulness-based therapy that focuses on redirecting negative thought patterns and building lifelong positive habits. 20-minute no-charge consultations are available so we can see if I am the right therapist for you. 

Go Mindful Counseling

Go Mindful Counseling offers compassionate and effective phone therapy and online therapy for anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, anger, stress, insomnia, and addictive behaviors (see the website for the full list of treatment options).  We provide cognitive behavioral therapy through in-person sessions, online video conferencing, and phone. Click below to schedule a free 20-minute consultation.

Margie Ahern
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