Cognitive Distortions

“Cognitive distortions” refer to the ways in which thought patterns distort when a person is under stress. A therapist can help you identify specific thought distortions that might occur when you are under external stress (such as during an argument with a loved one), or under internal stress (such as coping with anxiety or depression). This is an important component to what is known as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The “cognitive” part of this kind of therapy will help you learn about your thought patterns, and over time learn how you can change these patterns to begin to feel better. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (or CBT for short) is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, anxiety attacks, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc. It can also be used to improve stress management and help couples resolve conflicts more effectively.

Cognitive distortions tend to occur in predictable ways. By learning about the different kinds of distortions that can occur, you may begin to notice the specific patterns and distortions in your own thinking. Sometimes you may notice and be surprised by just how different your thinking and attitudes can be when you’re under stress versus when you feel more calm. For other people, they may notice that their thoughts are nearly always distorted when it comes to certain subjects. It can be really helpful to begin to notice the forms these distortions take. A good therapist will help you self-observe to create insight into your thoughts.

Many people believe that the first step to change is by taking small steps towards the desired change. This is false. The first step to any positive change is to learn about what it is you would like to change, so that you can clearly identify the problem you are dealing with. If you can’t clearly define what it is that you’d like to change, you won’t be as successful in making that change. That’s why I believe that learning about cognitive distortions really sets the groundwork for successfully treating anxiety, depression and conflict-resolution issues.

For many people new to therapy, the idea of changing thought patterns seems absurd. Thoughts just “happen,” automatically, right? Well, this is precisely where counseling with a cognitive-behavioral focus can be so useful. Our thoughts often are generated as if on auto-pilot, but we can learn to develop insight into ourselves to develop a change in these old patterns of seeing and doing things. A good counselor will be able to teach you about your thoughts and apply these concepts to your own life. I hope that this article will help, too.

Lets look at some specific examples of cognitive distortions:
Black-and-white thinking.
When you’re locked into black-and-white thinking, you believe that whatever is troubling you is all-or-nothing. A failure to get a desired promotion may take on the meaning that you’ve failed at your career as a whole, or that you hate your job. You may notice these distortions in your thoughts or in the words that you choose to use in arguments because they have an absolute quality. You may find yourself using superlatives such as “the worst,” or “always” and “never.” I’ve found in my psychotherapy practice that this type of distortion is one of the most common, and I hear it frequently from my clients.

Personalizing.

Sometimes in life, we may encounter difficult-to-deal-with people or behavior. Perhaps it seems as though someone isn’t really listening or engaged, or they don’t seem invested in us in some kind of way. This could be a one-time encounter (“what did I do to make that clerk act so rudely towards me?”). Sometimes it’s a deepening frustration that is the result of ongoing conflicts (“I’ve told him that this issue is important to me, why does this keep happening?”)

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume that other people’s behavior is about us- we personalize it. In the 12-step program of Al-Anon (a 12-step program designed for friends and family members of alcoholics) there is an expression, “people are just being themselves. Sometimes we just happen to be in front of them at the time.” When a person suffers from issues around self-esteem, or a long-standing pattern of care-taking other people, you may believe that you somehow caused that person to act that way, and if you just found the perfect way to approach them, they would act differently. We can always stand to learn how to improve our communication skills, but taking responsibility for other people’s behavior crosses the line into co-dependency.

Jumping to conclusions / Mind-reading / Making assumptions.
With these types of distortions, you assume that you know something as fact, when in fact your emotions are sending you a message which may or may not be true. You may have picked up on some information or data from your environment, but you make an assumption about it, before checking out all the facts.

Lets see how this works:
An example may be that you encounter a co-worker, friend or partner, and you begin to interact with them. During the interaction, you may notice a tone of voice or body language that lets you know something is “off.” For people with depression or anxiety, the tendency is to assume that this is about them- that the person they are interacting with has an issue with them. Whereas this may be true, sometimes the “data” you are receiving may be due to another factor- perhaps the other person is tired, distracted or upset about something else. In essence, you are “mind reading.” This is a form of personalization as well (many of the cognitive distortions overlap).

The really interesting thing is, this type of distortion tends to get worse if the interaction is about something you are particularly nervous about. For instance, if you go to talk to your boss about a raise and you enter the conversation convinced that you won’t be given what you want, and that person seems distracted or annoyed, you may assume your chances are shot. However, this assumption hasn’t been proven. Self-sabotaging behavior can sometimes play a role as well, as you may find yourself acting out in annoyance based on your assumption, which is more likely to get you the negative response you fear. This can be seen in shyness or social anxiety as well. For example, when asking someone out on a date, a shy or anxious person may read every cue as if the other person isn’t interested. If you choose to react to your mind-reading by adopting a discouraged tone or by becoming sarcastic yourself, the other person may respond in a less than favorable way. When you make negative assumptions, you may talk yourself out of what it is you really want!

Mental filter/ Focusing on the negative / Minimizing.
You may notice that the more anxious or depressed you feel, the more often you may find yourself dwelling on conflicts, potential (or actual) issues, or the “what-ifs.”  This can become obsessive at times, with frequent ruminations on all of the problems in your life.  You may minimize your accomplishments, or the help or support available around you.  This can become a vicious circle, as the more your thoughts create a negative lens through which you see your life, the more depressed or anxious you feel.  Your self-esteem and confidence also begins to suffer.

Mental filtering describes the tendency of people with depression and anxiety to focus or dwell on the negative parts of an interaction, while disregarding the positive. In essence, you find yourself minimizing the importance of all of the positive parts of the interaction. This can result in arguments with your significant other, or worsen existing self-esteem issues. With people who suffer from depression, positive attributes are minimized and a sense of anxiety or failure can arise from small mistakes. It’s as if every flaw is highlighted, and nothing else is importEmotional reasoning.
With emotional reasoning, a person allows their emotions to drive their perception of things. As we’ve seen in previous examples, a person’s emotional state will tend to inform them about what part of their environment to pay attention to. Emotions can be so powerful that they may seem like facts. In emotional reasoning, the thought process goes like this: “I feel like …, therefore it must be true.” I feel like my partner is angry with me, why else would they be ignoring me when I try to talk about my day, therefore it must be true! Another common example may relate to performance: I feel bad about my presentation, so I must have done a bad job.

When emotions override logic or a more rational style of thinking or approaching things, often mood gets worse, not better. Cognitive distortions have a way of becoming a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. As mood worsens (as seen in depression), or anxiety levels spike, cognitive distortions happen more frequently.

Catastrophisizing / Fortune-telling / Predicting the future
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I often see this type of distortion in clients with high anxiety levels. I like to tell my clients, “anxiety has a way of predicting the future, and your anxiety will always predict a negative outcome.” It’s like a Magic 8-ball with only one setting: No. Anxiety loves to live in the future, where bad things happen and you can’t handle them. If you find yourself engaging in this type of thought process, you will notice two things: you are more focused on what you believe is going to happen than what is taking place in the here-and-now, and your prediction is overwhelmingly negative or anxiety-provoking.

There’s something really interesting that I’ve noticed around this type of thought distortion. Oftentimes clients often will create a great deal of worry, stress and anxiety by focusing on a negative prediction (for instance, that someone will break up with them or that they will lose their job), and these same people who seem to feel that they would fall apart if such an event were to occur deal with it just fine if it does occur. In fact, they often tell me that their anxiety levels drop significantly when bad things happen. It is the anticipation of a bad event that causes the mental stress, not the bad event itself.

A lot of times my clients may believe that this type of thinking is helping them, by helping them predict bad things that may occur, they feel more in control or better prepared. In fact, many of my clients tell me when they begin cognitive-behavioral work that they’re afraid of changing this thought pattern. It’s pretty common to believe that this type of thinking gives you an “edge” over other people. You may even believe that this is what is driving you to save money, work harder in school or on the job, or compete with others. In reality, this thought process is a trap. Often thoughts of catastrophe arise because of anxiety, but the thoughts themselves feed the anxiety levels, spiking them even higher. As anxiety levels rise, a person might feel compelled to make more and more “predictions,” and so a viscous circle begins. Compulsive behaviors (such as checking your bank account balance multiple times a day, or asking for excessive reassurances from friends/family) can also derive from these thought patterns. Compulsions such as excessive shopping, eating or drug/alcohol problems can also result, as a way to try to calm yourself down or distract yourself.

You can learn to lessen your anxiety levels and let go of this style of thinking, and still find the motivation to take good care of yourself. This should be a goal of any good therapy process. All of my clients who have successfully completed therapy with me using cognitive-behavioral methods have found that they continue to perform at a high level at school or work, and continue to successfully set goals and achieve them, without the anxiety.

Negative fortune-telling is also a major symptom in depression, although it happens in a slightly different way. With depression, it may often seem as though gathering the motivation to get together with friend or maintain hobbies won’t have a good outcome. This can easily lead to self-isolation or giving up on activities that used to leave you feeling good. As these activities are reduced, mood further deteriorates, and motivation to engage in life’s pleasures diminishes even more.

As the above examples illustrate, many thought distortions relate to one another and feed into one another. If you’d like to learn more abut cognitive distortions and how use specific techniques to improve your thinking patterns and boost your mood, I recommend this book: The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns.I hope that you’ve found this article helpful as a starting point for self-evaluation around distorted thinking. Perhaps you’ve noticed some of your own thinking patterns in my descriptions. That’s great! Developing insight and understanding is the first step towards positive change. In a future blog article, I’d like to speak to how to change cognitive distortions engaging in mental exercises, making behavioral changes and using journaling as a tool.© Vanessa E. Ford, 2010