Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that can lead individuals to perceive reality inaccurately, often leading to negative emotional and behavioral outcomes. These distortions can affect various aspects of a person's life, including physical health, mental health, and work success. In this article, we will define cognitive distortions, provide examples of each type, and explore evidence-based strategies for overcoming them.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thoughts and beliefs that are not based on evidence or reason. These thoughts can be automatic and can lead to negative emotions and behaviors. Cognitive distortions can stem from past experiences, cultural beliefs, and personal biases, among other factors. Examples of cognitive distortions include black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, personalization, and emotional reasoning, among others.
Cognitive distortions have been linked to physical health outcomes. Research has found that negative thought patterns, such as catastrophizing and all-or-nothing thinking, can lead to increased levels of stress, which can have adverse effects on the body. For example, a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that individuals who engaged in more negative thinking were more likely to experience physical health problems such as headaches, backaches, and stomach problems than those who engaged in positive thinking. Additionally, research has found that negative thought patterns can contribute to chronic pain and other physical symptoms.
Cognitive distortions can also have a significant impact on mental health outcomes. In a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, it was found that individuals who engaged in cognitive distortions such as catastrophic thinking and overgeneralization were more likely to experience anxiety and depression symptoms. Increased levels of stress from perceived threats can also exacerbate mental health issues.
Work success has also been tied to distorted thoughts. For example, negative thought patterns can lead to decreased job performance and productivity. A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that individuals who engaged in cognitive distortions such as overgeneralization and all-or-nothing thinking were more likely to experience job burnout and decreased work engagement. They can also contribute to interpersonal problems at work and affect relationships with colleagues and supervisors.
Examples of Cognitive Distortions
All-or-Nothing Thinking: Seeing things in black-and-white terms, with no shades of gray. Black or white thinking is extreme thinking that often leads to intense emotions and behaviors. Things are either ‘black or white’, we’re either perfect, or we’re a complete failure — and there’s no middle ground. We place people or situations in ‘either/or’ categories, where there are no shades of gray. This doesn’t allow for the complexity of most individuals and situations. Unfortunately, we fall into all-or-nothing traps very quickly.
EXAMPLE: You start your new ‘healthy eating’ diet to lose weight, and you give in to the temptation of chocolate. Black or white thinking might lead you to conclude that you have failed your plan and then proceed to eat the entire box of chocolates. Black-and-white thinking does not acknowledge that there are usually several shades of gray that exist between black and white. In seeing only two possible sides or outcomes to something, a person ignores the middle — which is most often the more reasonable — ground.
Catastrophizing (Magnification): Imagining the worst-case scenario and blowing it out of proportion. Magnification is taking a fairly minor negative event and blowing it completely out of proportion — imagining all sorts of disasters resulting from one small event.
EXAMPLE: "If I lose my job, I'll never be able to find another one, and I'll end up homeless." Or your new girlfriend declines an invitation to have dinner with your parents. Before giving her a chance to explain her reasons, you hang up on her and conclude that this is her way of telling you the relationship is over. But it doesn’t end there; then you go on to imagine her calling each of her friends and telling them what a mistake she made in dating you. You decide you’re never going to find another partner and will die old and lonely.
You can nip catastrophic thinking in the bud by acknowledging it for what it is – it’s simply just ‘thoughts.’ If you find yourself thinking about the worst-case scenario, consider the following: Take your objective stance and put things in perspective. Are you sure that your girlfriend wanted to end the relationship or is it possible she had other valid reasons for not agreeing to dinner with your parents? Consider less terrifying explanations. What other possible reasons could there be for her saying ‘no’?
Weigh the evidence that you have (the facts). Do you have enough information to reach the conclusion that she wants to leave you? Has she given you a reason to think this before? Look for any evidence that counteracts the assumption that you’ve made. Focus on what you could do to cope with the situation and the people or resources that can help you. No matter what catastrophic assumption you’ve reached in your mind, it’s unlikely that the world is going to end even if your assumption does come to fruition.
Minimization: In the opposite way to magnification, minimizing is when we play down our own positive attributes. A person who assigns multiple negative labels to themselves tends to promote these definitions before anything positive. Minimization is a defense mechanism employed to help the individual through adversity, but its power to generate distorted thinking causes more damage in the long term. It makes us susceptible to being abused, mistreated and taken advantage of as these behaviors against us correlate with how we define and describe ourselves. We devalue ourselves proportionately to how we put on a pedestal and idolize others to the detriment of our self-esteem and confidence, all in the pursuit of humility.
Overgeneralization (Categorizing): Drawing broad conclusions based on a single event. Based on one instance in the past or present, you assume that in the future all others will follow a similar pattern. A sense of helplessness often accompanies such over-generalizations.
EXAMPLE: "I made a mistake in my presentation, so I'm terrible at public speaking." Or you have one of those days when you get into your car and it doesn’t work, you drop a slice of pizza, cheese side down, and think to yourself, ‘this kind of thing is always happening to me. Nothing ever goes right for me’, and then feel even worse. You get easily angered. Perhaps when taking public transport you are delayed by another passenger who cannot find the money to pay for her bus ticket and think to yourself, ‘this is typical; other people are so stupid,’ and you become tense and angry.
Put things into perspective. How true is it that ‘nothing ever goes right for you?’ Consider how many other people in the world might also be having car trouble at this exact moment? Do you ever judge others? When you judge all people as ‘stupid,’ including the women buying her ticket on the bus, you make yourself angrier and are less able to effectively deal with relatively minor mishaps.
Personalization: Taking things personally and assuming that everything is about you. When you believe that everything others say or do is some sort of direct, personal reaction to you. Also, when you compare yourself to other people and try to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc. If you think in this way, you may see yourself as responsible for some unhealthy external event that you were not actually responsible for at all.
EXAMPLE: "My boss didn't say hello to me this morning, so she must be angry with me."
Mind Reading: Assuming you know what others are thinking without any evidence. A person who ‘jumps to conclusions’ will often make a negative interpretation or prediction even when there is no real evidence supporting their conclusion. This sort of thinking is often based on what we think other people feel towards us. It can show up as ‘mind reading’ (assuming the thoughts and intentions of others) or also as ‘fortune-telling’ (anticipating the worst and accepting it as fact).
EXAMPLE: "My coworkers didn't invite me to lunch, so they must not like me.” Or, you’re at a party, and you don’t like your outfit. You decide ‘everybody is laughing at me’ (mind reading), or say you’re going to take your driver's test and ‘know’ that you are going to fail (fortune-telling). Or imagine you pass your neighbor on the street and she says a quick ‘hi’ but doesn’t act in a friendly way. You assume that she must be annoyed with you about your dog barking and is making plans to report you to the landlord. However, you’ll never know for sure what she was thinking, so you make the wise decision to challenge your negative assumptions.
To do this, take a step back and consider all the evidence you have available to you. Do you have enough information or evidence to conclude that everyone was laughing at you at that party or that your neighbor is annoyed with you? Is it possible that she was just preoccupied with her own thoughts that day?
Emotional Reasoning: Believing that your emotions are evidence of reality. Often if we depend heavily on our feelings as a guide, this leads us away from the path of reality.
EXAMPLE: Your spouse has been spending a lot of evenings working late at his office with a colleague. You feel suspicious and jealous. Based on your feelings, you reach the conclusion that your partner is having an affair with a co-worker.
Start paying attention to your thoughts. Watch out for thoughts like ‘I’m feeling apprehensive, something must be wrong’ and recognize that feelings are often not the best way to measure reality, especially if you’re not in the best emotional state at the moment. Consider how you would view the situation if you were feeling calmer. Check to see if there is any concrete evidence that supports your interpretation of your feelings. Is there really any evidence that suggests something bad is about to happen?
Discounting the Positive (Deletions): Ignoring positive events or qualities and focusing only on the negative. Disqualifying the positive is about processing information in a biased way. Disqualifying the positive is a mental process that changes a positive event into a neutral or negative event in your mind.
EXAMPLE: You believe that you’re worthless and when you find out you’ve got a promotion at work you tell yourself "it doesn’t count because anyone could get this sort of thing." Instead of feeling pleased with yourself, you feel quite disappointed.
Self-Victimization (Learned Helplessness): We’ve all known someone who regularly feels sorry for themselves. Truthfully, even we fall victim to this mindset once in a while. Self-victimization is when a person reflects on their past trauma, experiences, and circumstances (or even their present) and overindulges themselves in self-pity and sympathy. They become so immersed in their negative thoughts and experiences that they begin to live in them permanently. What we focus on in life, we feel.
Emotions aren’t illnesses. They’re the results of particular thoughts, and thoughts don’t need curing - they need managing and changing. People with learned helplessness believe they cannot change or that they should be treated a certain way and handled a certain way because they learned from their experiences, peers, and family that they are a victim.
The Fallacy of Fairness: This is when people become consumed with the concept that certain things in life ‘aren’t fair’.
EXAMPLE: Exhibiting thinking such as it’s not fair they weren’t born into a rich family, it’s not fair they aren’t taller, it’s not fair that another person got a promotion and not them, it’s not fair that they have depression whilst other people have happy lives, etc. This attitude translates, quite plainly, into someone saying ‘the world is not giving me what I want, when I want it, in the way that I want it, and when it should be’.
Life is never fair: everyone has their moments of struggle, some more than others. There are good people who suffer their whole lives whilst there are bad people who never suffer at all. However, fairness is nothing more about perception and comparison: it’s how we view the world rather than the way the world is.
Blaming and Irresponsibility: People find it relieving and liberating to blame other people for the way their life is the way it is: it’s X’s fault they have self-esteem issues, it’s Y’s fault they feel depressed, it’s Z’s fault things didn’t go to plan. Whilst it may be satisfying to place blame, blaming others doesn’t alleviate or solve the problems you’re dealing with: only you can fix how you feel about a situation, and only you can get yourself through a situation. When we take more responsibility for the role we play in our own lives (for our actions, thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs), the more empowered we are to change.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: This is where people live in a world of idealism in which they believe martyrdom is a worthy role to play in life. Serving the greater good can often-time be a distortion in our minds of a justification for doing things we want to do and endorsing things we want to believe in. No one is serving the greater good in these scenarios: they’re just using the greater good as an excuse and justification for their actions and behaviors.
Rigid Rule Keeping: When you have a list of rules about how you and other people should behave. Those who break the rules make us angry, and if you break the rules, you feel guilty as a result. People often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with should and shouldn’t, almost as if they must be punished before they can do anything.
EXAMPLE: “I must...I should...You must...You should...”. Such statements provide insight into the standards you tend to uphold and the things you expect of others and yourself. These standards can at times be helpful. However, they can also create unrealistic expectations that you or other people will find it difficult to live up to.
The inflexibility of the demands that you place on yourself, others, and the world around you, often means you do not adapt to reality as well as you could. You believe that you ‘must’ have the approval of your friends and associates. This causes you to feel anxious in various social situations and drives you to try and gain everyone’s approval.
You think that as you try very hard to be considerate and kind, in return they really should be just as kind and considerate. However, because your demand is unrealistic – sadly, other people are governed by their own priorities, and you often feel let down by others who don’t act in the same way in which you do. You believe that you absolutely ‘should’ never let others down. This means that you rarely put your own needs first. In many areas of life, you don’t assert yourself, and end up taking on more than your fair share. You end up stressed as a result.
Adopting flexible preferences about yourself, others, and the world, in general, is a healthy alternative to inflexible and rigid rule keeping. Rather than making demands on yourself and others, instead, pay attention to language. Replace words like ‘must,’ ‘should’ and ‘need,’ with ‘prefer,’ ‘want’ and ‘wish.’ Limit approval seeking. Would you have a satisfying life even if you didn’t get the approval of everyone you’re seeking it from?
Confusing Feelings with Facts: Some people can become so distorted in their thinking that they end up defining themselves by how they feel: if they define themselves as depressed, they’ll act depressed and if they define themselves as anxious, they’ll act on edge and anxious. Note, self-defining is different from expressing to someone your feelings on a certain day or through a certain period of time. Feelings are not facts.
No one should ever feel the need to define themselves by an emotion, because they are so much more than that emotion. The danger of defining oneself by an emotion such as depression is, we’re psychologically more inclined to feel secure and comfortable being that way (as we assign our self-esteem and identity to it), meaning it’s much harder to help someone out of this emotion and through recovery, as they’ll feel like they are losing a part of themselves.
Overcoming Cognitive Distortions
Our perception of reality is rarely reality, and cognitive distortions occur when the brain creates faulty connections and, effectively lies to you. Everyone who reads psychology will be familiar with the phrase, “correlation does not equal causation”, and this is where such a statement applies. It’s commonplace to make connections where there is none. When interpreting life people assume that because two variables are correlated, one cause leads to the other.
Cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts and beliefs we unconsciously reinforce over time through mental, or oral, repetition, and are effective at provoking or exacerbating symptoms of depression if propagated over a long period of time. Starting a daily journal in which you take note of only the positive experiences you’ve had in your day (no matter how minor they are), practicing gratitude, and focussing on building a foundation for self-worth and internal validation will allow you to cease minimizing your worth and self. Whereas taking a step back from reality, practicing objective questioning and emotional responsibility allows for an empowered and measured reaction to maximization.
There are several evidence-based strategies for overcoming cognitive distortions, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based interventions, and positive psychology interventions. CBT is a widely used therapeutic approach that helps individuals identify and challenge their cognitive distortions. By learning to recognize and replace negative thoughts with more balanced and realistic ones, individuals can reduce their negative emotions and behaviors.
Mindfulness-based interventions, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), can also help individuals overcome cognitive distortions. By teaching individuals to be more aware of their thoughts and emotions, mindfulness-based interventions can help individuals gain more control over their thinking and reduce the impact of cognitive distortions on their lives.
Positive psychology interventions, such as gratitude journaling and positive affirmations, can also help individuals overcome cognitive distortions by focusing on positive thoughts and experiences. Research has found that these interventions can increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions, thereby reducing the impact of cognitive distortions on mental health and well-being.
To summarize, cognitive distortions can have significant impacts on physical health, mental health, and work success. However, evidence-based strategies such as CBT, mindfulness-based interventions, and positive psychology interventions can help individuals overcome cognitive distortions and improve their quality of life.
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