Cognitive Distortions

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Our mind does have some pretty neat tricks. A lot of the time it is very good at categorising, problem solving, and working with information in its different forms. At times though, our mind can lead us down the garden path without us being aware of it. Cognitive distortions are one such way that our mind can perform its neat tricks. When our mind processes information in a distorted way, our thinking deviates from normal rational judgement. In a way, we are mildly disconnected from reality and this disconnection can inadvertently lead us to a pattern of negative thinking, behaviours, and emotions.

Cognitive research has tested and described hundreds of cognitive biases with implications for business practices, social reform, and mental health. Here I want to focus on some of the cognitive biases which have been applied to the treatment of a number of mental health conditions including depression and anxiety.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (and related therapies like Schema Therapy/ACT/CFT to a degree) is concerned with cognitive biases characterised by extreme thinking, selective attention, over-reliance on intuition, and self-reproach which can inadvertently lead to increased emotional distress. Several common distortions are regularly referred to and include:

  • Black and white thinking
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Catastrophising
  • Over-generalisation
  • Mental filter
  • Disqualifying the positives
  • Magnification
  • Minimisation
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Emotional reasoning
  • Taking things personally
  • Self-blame
  • Name calling (self)

For example, when we become over-reliant on our intuition, we can “jump to conclusions” and make assumptions without facts to support those assumptions. Practically, this can present itself as negative thinking during social situations (mind reading), where we assume that we know what others are thinking about us. In these situations our mind can say things like: ” I know that behind their smiles, they are laughing at me and thinking that I am a fool”. Of course with these types of statements running through our mind unchecked, we are likely to experience a whole lot of negative emotions.

At times, simply noticing what our mind is doing can help us to deal with cognitive distortions. When we can see what our mind is doing and label the process, this can help us to create distance from the content of the thoughts, and reduce the intensity of the emotions. At other times a different approach may be helpful. For the example above, rather than trying to guess what others are thinking, it may be helpful to clarify how the other person is generally thinking and feeling by asking them. Alternatively, some people find it helpful to begin developing a new habit of listing a couple of other possible thoughts and feelings that the other person might be having, and noticing social signals (where the other person is looking, body posture etc.) which are in support of that alternative view.

If you would like to explore your tricky mind and how cognitive distortions apply to you, you can make an appointment at one of the two locations listed on the welcome page of my website:

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