Cognitive Distortions: A guide to discerning irrational thoughts

Our thoughts, behaviours and emotions are all closely linked. Imagine them working as a cycle; if one of these factors is damaged, this can offset both other factors. Often, it is our negative thoughts which cause us to behave differently and feel bad.

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As is shown by CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), in order to break this cycle of negative thoughts, behaviours and emotions, it is necessary to positively modify only one of these factors to begin to improve all three.

In this article, we will look at recognising negative thoughts and knowing how to rationalise them, so that this cycle can be upturned to improve our mood. This can be done through considering ‘Cognitive Distortions’, various ways in which our minds trick us into thinking an irrational and negative thought is true.

Common Cognitive Distortions:

  1. Filtering

Mental filtering occurs when we focus only on negative aspects of a situation, and blow them out of proportion by filtering out – or pushing aside – consideration of any positive aspects. This can lead to heightened anxiety or depression. For example, we might accuse ourselves of being a failure because of one negative comment (whether from a colleague, boss, teacher…), when actually, all the positive comments that we push aside are proof of our relative success.

We must instead practise considering negative aspects of a situation only in proportion with – and alongside – the positive ones. When you begin to notice yourself focusing on a negative thought, how about you make a list of the positives you know you should also take into account?

  • Polarized thinking

Polarized thinking is when we view situations as having consequences or outcomes which are either “black or white” – all or nothing. For example, it might be thinking that we are a failure in sport unless we are the best in our team. In other words, this thinking style dismisses the grey area in the middle of the two extremes in which, more often than not, our actions fall. Polarized thinking is a common trait of perfectionists who consider any outcome less than perfect as a failure. This can lead to heightened anxiety and low self-esteem.

We must instead practise viewing our actions with self-compassion, recognising both our strengths and our weaknesses together, and not maximise the weight of one over the other.

  • Overgeneralisation

Overgeneralisation occurs when we base our universal assumptions on one particular person or situation. This distortion does not allow us to recognise that not everybody has the same thoughts, nor does every situation unfold in exactly the same way. For example, we might hold the belief that we will never be able to succeed in a job based on one negative experience in a former job. However, this does not take into account the fact that we could thrive in a job better suited to our skillset, or with colleagues we get on better with.

We must learn to acknowledge that ups and downs are inevitable, but that one negative experience does not determine every future experience we will live. We could try pushing ourselves into situations we are scared of to learn that they don’t always pan out as negatively as we expected!

  • Jumping to conclusions 

Jumping to conclusions is making an assumption based on very little to no evidence. An example of this might occur when we a friend does not reply to our text message. Whilst the reason for this could be due to that friend being busy, having forgotten to reply, or not having decided on what to say in response, a common assumption might be that our friend no longer wants to be friends. On paper, this seems like an overreaction to such a small stimulus – and that’s because it is.

We must practise rationalising our thoughts by considering more than one but of evidence, and seeing the situation in its entirety, rather than focusing on one insignificant detail. It might help to view the situation externally from your position, for example by questioning what reasons you commonly have for not replying instantly to a text message.

  • Catastrophizing:

Catastrophizing is when we envisage the unlikely worst case scenario being the likely outcome of a situation. This can lead to heightened anxiety because our situation feels much further out of our control and capacity of change than it actually is. An example of catastrophizing might be seen in cases of social anxiety: we might fear that we will embarrass ourselves and result in losing all our friends. However, the likelihood is that we won’t embarrass ourselves at all, and that our friends wouldn’t mind if we did, or that we might even have a good time!

We could practise not catastrophizing by regularly putting ourselves into scary situations to learn that we needn’t ever have been scared of the catastrophe we envisaged. We might also write down a list of all the potentially positive – or less negative – outcomes of a situation.

Like myself, you may have read these cognitive distortions, understood the rationale, and maybe even been able to relate to some of them in your own thinking. Whilst these cognitive distortions feature in our lives through our negative thoughts on a regular basis, it takes practise to rationalise them as and when the negative thought springs into our heads. I encourage you to ask yourself the question “Is this true?” when a negative thought comes into your head, then to run through the list of cognitive distortions to determine whether you can really answer that question affirmatively.