Ever had the feeling that your brain is lying to you? Cognitive distortions are irrational ways of thinking that impact our ability to see the world as it actually is. We are all susceptible to them from time to time and they can lead to misjudgments, unwarranted self-criticism, depression and anxiety. However all is not lost, as being able to identify distorted thoughts is the first step toward overcoming them.

Imagining the absolute worst outcome, believing that luck is always against you or that one poor outcome dooms you to a life of failure. These are all examples of cognitive distortions and they happen to the best of us. But where do these patterns of thought come from?

Understanding the link between thoughts, emotions and behaviours is key to breaking the cycle of cognitive distortion.

Why Do They Occur

Distorted thoughts are understood to be an evolutionary coping mechanism that occur in response to a person’s adverse life events. They are a psychological ‘escape card’, allowing a person to reset their expectations in order to avoid disappointment or failure by setting the bar low or otherwise explaining away seemingly challenging scenarios. Unfortunately, this attempt to cope with unpleasant thoughts or feelings can lead to further patterns of negative thinking or manifest as behaviours that do much more harm than good. These maladaptive actions then set the groundwork for future distortions, lowering an individual’s quality of life and increasing the risk of experiencing mental health disorders.

Understanding the link between thoughts, emotions and behaviours is key to breaking the cycle of cognitive distortion. This process is mostly subconscious and automatic, but can be managed once made aware of (and with enough practice). Let’s use an example to illustrate the point. When certain events occur (a job rejection) we may have an automatic reaction that we pay little attention to, other than perhaps noticing the eventual behaviour outcome, e.g: blaming ourselves, choosing avoidance, etc. But let’s rewind a few steps. Our thoughts that occur in reaction to an event trigger emotions, which in turn guide us toward likeminded behaviour outcomes. As mentioned, much of this is automatic, and once the cognitive train has left the station, so to speak, it is difficult to address. Challenging our initial thoughts will yield us the best results, as everything will logically follow downstream in a more balanced way.

Common Distortions And How To Overcome Them

It’s important to acknowledge that bad things can happen, but they aren’t guaranteed. Instead, choose to invite other possibilities as plausible reasons why something may, or may not, happen.

Catastrophising: Many of us can probably identify someone who seems to leap to the worst possible outcome. They believe (incorrectly) that if they don’t pass their upcoming exam, they will fail school, or if their partner leaves them, they will never find anyone else, or be happy ever again. It is easy to judge people who think the worst as simply being overly negative, yet there could be a good reason for them to jump to conclusions and magnify their present issues. In many cases, these people have experienced reoccurring trauma from similar situations, and are looking to avoid or otherwise mitigate the pain that may arise from a familiar event. For these individuals, it’s important to acknowledge that bad things can happen, but they aren’t guaranteed. Instead, choose to invite other possibilities as plausible reasons why something may, or may not, happen. This will help them get out of a negative train of thought and help correct irrational thinking before it turns into irrational behaviour.

Filtering: Mental filters involve taking a single, small event and focusing on it exclusively, in turn filtering out anything else. A person who is filtering may dwell on the negative, causing any positive aspect to remain unnoticed or otherwise explained away. For example, a person may receive feedback which includes a suggestion for improvement, and instead of integrating that advice, they instead dwell on the suggestion, overlooking the praise they also received for their good work. To overcome this distortion, a person should learn to equally appraise both aspects of an event, positive and negative, in order to form a more complete mental picture.

Polarisation: Polarised thoughts (also known as ‘all-or-nothing thinking’) takes the form of believing that everything in the world is black or white, one way or another. For example, you may receive a lower grade on a test than what you normally average, and might see this as the point at which you have become a terrible student, instead of it being a singular occurrence (a shade of grey). This type of thinking can lead to a self-defeating attitude, reducing your motivation and effort. In order to overcome this distortion, take a step back and evaluate the triggering event within the context of a longer timeline. Challenge your thinking – is this set back really the end? Or just a blip that you can learn from in order to become even better?

Further Help

Beyond practicing good mental hygiene by challenging negative thoughts and replacing absolutes with maybe’s, there are tailored solutions to help you overcome cognitive distortions. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a well-known and widely adopted form of evidence-based therapy that focuses on changing your mindset and shifting away from distorted patterns of thought. Many psychologists are trained in this field and can provide you with useful tools to help you break free from cognitive distortions and adopt a more rational, and balanced, view of the world.

Remember, help is available wherever you are and for whatever is currently troubling you. Check with your local doctor for a referral to a mental health professional or consult the appropriate health process in your country for more help and assistance. There are also many comprehensive online and phone-based resources available across the world that can help you get back to living a better quality of life.

For immediate help, please consult with the following resources, and know that things will be okay.

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