We tend to trust a lot of what is happening in our brains. While our brains certainly help us in various ways – make decisions, keep us safe, and find solutions, we can’t always trust our daily thoughts. Over time, in response to trauma or stressful life events, our brains develop a few faulty cognitive distortions that don’t always serve our best interest. In fact, these false beliefs and thoughts cause us to inaccurately perceive ourselves and the world around us in an unhealthy way. Keep reading to learn how to challenge cognitive distortions and gain several tips to help you form a more positive perception about yourself and your life.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
“Life will always be like this”! “I shouldn’t have made that mistake six years ago!”. These statements are examples of cognitive distortions, which are irritational or negative biases we unknowingly reinforce or make about ourselves or the world. Unfortunately, they can become a part of our identity, damage our self-esteem and contribute to psychological problems like anxiety, depression, and self-harm.
What Causes Cognitive Distortions?
Research suggests cognitive distortions or false patterns of thinking are coping or defense mechanisms that help you overcome challenging life events. Yet, when someone experiences severe events consistently, they become more vulnerable to forming inaccurate thoughts about themselves and the world. Another theory suggests stress causes people to adapt their thinking for survival and preservation, and over time, people use these thoughts to feel in control.
12 Types of Cognitive Distortions
When you become mindful of these common cognitive distortions, it will be easier to manage your day-to-day, without your inner critic controlling the shots.
- All or nothing thinking. Also known as black and white thinking involves seeing everything in extremes – either fantastic or horrible, nothing in between.
- Jumping to conclusions (Mind reading). Assuming you know what someone else is thinking even when they’re not thinking that.
- Jumping to conclusions (Fortune telling). When you predict events will happen in a certain way and hold them as static beliefs.
- Personalizing. Taking everything personally and blaming yourself when there is little to no evidence suggesting you should.
- Overgeneralization. After experiencing an event, you believe things will always or never be like that one event.
- Catastrophizing. Exaggerating unpleasant events.
- Discounting the positive. Obsessing over one negative statement or experience while ignoring the many positive ones.
- Emotional reasoning. This refers to believing one’s emotions; I feel it, therefore, it must be true.
- Should statements. These statements involve things you should or must do.
- Labeling. For example, labeling someone as rude and not being open to anyone’s opinion that they’re not.
- Always being right. Constantly believing you’re right and needing to prove you are.
- Delusions. Having a fixed belief despite evidence that proves otherwise.
How to Challenge Cognitive Distortions
1. Identify the thought
The first step to learning how to challenge cognitive distortions is identifying them. First, name a difficult emotion you’re experiencing, like sadness, irritability or frustration. Also, include any physical sensations accompanying the emotion like chest tightness, rapid breathing, or muscle tension – this step increases mind-body awareness. Once you identify what you’re feeling, notice the thoughts going through your mind as you experience what you’re emotionally and physically feeling. This step teaches you the connection between your thoughts and feelings, which is helpful in reducing their power.
2. Examine the evidence
Now that you’re aware of the connection between your thoughts and feelings, you can examine the evidence. For example, if you’re sad you failed a test, ask yourself how often this happens? Yes, it’s unfortunate you received a bad grade and you’re certainly having a bad day, but what can you do to move forward? Can you email your professor to retake the exam? Ask for extra credit? When you examine the situation causing you pain, you’re more likely to look for solutions rather than getting caught in a thought trap.
3. The RAIN technique
When your brain is on overdrive, repeating one negative thought after another, it can feel overwhelming to find a way out. But instead of trying to ignore them, try a different approach. The RAIN technique is a mindful practice designed to bring self-awareness to emotional distress to soften your cognitive distortions.
- R = Recognize. Recognize the emotions or thoughts that are troubling you without judgment. For example, I’m upset because my partner and I are fighting.
- A = Acknowledge. Next, try to acknowledge your distress for what it is; a temporary experience, not a permanent reality. For example, “Yes, I’m upset about my relationship, but that doesn’t define who I am.”
- I = Investigate. Now, investigate the cause of your thoughts. You can ask yourself: What triggered this distress? When have I felt this way before? What can I do to help myself?
- N = Non-identification. Lastly, your current mental state does not define who you are. Instead of paying attention to them, try to view them as passing clouds that will eventually go with time.
4. Reframe the situation
Catastrophic thinking, overgeneralization, and discounting the positive are all examples of cognitive distortions that make you think in extremes. When these occur, try to look for ways to expand your thinking. For example, write down your current concerns followed by four alternatives. So, if you’re worried about moving to a new apartment, you may think you’re going to hate it, not make friends, or die alone with eight cats. In this scenario, reframe it by looking for shades of gray – perhaps your new neighborhood will be quieter, you’ll experience more enjoyment, or you’ll be closer to work.
5. What if?
What’s the worst that can happen? When we’re stressed, we tend to replay all the worst-case scenarios even if the outcome is not possible or logical. Yet, asking yourself, “What if?” is an exercise that allows you to work through each scenario your brain creates. For example, if you’re worried you’ll get fired from your job, write down what you think will occur. When you do, provide a solution for each one. Working through your cognitive distortions will help you reduce irrational anxiety and learn that each scenario is manageable, even if it feels otherwise.
6. Use your ABCs
The ABC method helps identify the link between your thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
- Start by remembering a situation where you felt upset and identifying the triggers (antecedents). For example, if your friend upset you, ask yourself, what happened? What caused you to feel angry?
- Next, write every detail about your beliefs. When your friend hurt you, what did you think would happen? What do you believe about yourself now? That your friendship will never be the same?
- Lastly, describe the consequences. What happened after this situation occurred? How did your friend react to you?
This exercise will help you understand more about yourself and your thinking after a stressful event.
7. Consider CBT
Cognitive distortions can be challenging to manage. Our brain can make them feel real even after exhausting every psychological method we know. As a result, reaching out to a therapist and receiving cognitive behavior therapy can help you work through your false beliefs. In fact, cognitive behavioral therapy is the gold standard for managing negative thoughts and helps you feel more in control of your internal dialogue.
While we all experience cognitive distortions, if they happen too often, they can harm our self-esteem, daily life, and relationships. Learning how to challenge cognitive distortions can feel like an impossible battle, but therapy and consistent practice will help you. Indeed, you’ll feel an overall improvement in your emotional well-being when you discover how to improve your thoughts.
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