Cognitive distortions

This article is part of a series called working with anxiety. In the previous article, I introduced you to the role of your thought processes your cognitions, and today I want to delve deeper into your thought processes.

Aaron Beck1, who gave us cognitive behavioural therapy, noted that mental health conditions have specific themes. For example, anxiety has explicit cognitive content running through it, which could be an overestimated or exaggerated sense of danger for those with phobias.

It is essential to look at these themes, as they give rise to your emotions as your cognitions affect how you feel.

Thoughts create feelings.

An essential part of this series on working with anxiety is understanding that your thoughts create feelings.

Quick experiment. If you are unsure of the power of your thought processes, think of your favourite food. This could be steak. Think of a nice big juicy steak; try to imagine the smell, cutting into it with a knife and raising it to your lips. Is your mouth watering? If it is, this change in your body is all down to the power of your thoughts!

When a person first comes to see me for therapy for anxiety, many are not sure why they are anxious. When I explain the cognitive model of therapy to a client, it shows them that understanding their thought processes is crucial to understanding their own emotion of anxiety. It is their thinking style or cognitive theme that keeps their anxiety going.

The tenet of cognitive behavioural therapy and this article is to examine your thought processes like a scientist studies his subject.

Like the scientist, you do not take anything for granted or accept that something (including your thoughts) is valid until you have stood back, checked for errors and looked for supporting evidence that your thoughts are accurate.

Important. This is not merely being aware of your thought processes but examining them, inspecting them, questioning their validity, looking for evidence. This will help you see how specific thought processes give rise to anxiety.

A misconception clients have is that things create their anxiety. For example, If I asked you to give a presentation at work, it is not the presentation that causes your anxiety. If that were true, everyone would feel anxious when giving presentations. Thinking that you will mess up, stutter, or that others will laugh at you suffices to change your emotional experience of the talk. These thoughts, not the presentation, will make you anxious.

An essential part of CBT is understanding that your thoughts may not be accurate, and it takes practice to recognise when you are making mistakes in your thinking. You might have started recording your thought processes by reading my previous article. If you did, you are now ready to take a deeper look at them and inspect for errors, or as we call them, cognitive distortions.

Cognitive Distortions.

A cognitive distortion is a name given to a habitual way of thinking, which leans towards negativity, and when examined, these thoughts are not accurate or helpful.

We all have these cognitive distortions, but they become problematic when they become habitual and reinforce an uncomfortable emotion. This series is about working with anxiety, so I shall help you focus on cognitive distortions that will encourage and maintain the feeling of anxiety.

From the activities I set during this series of articles, I hope you see that the more anxious your thinking becomes, the more anxious you feel.

If your cognitive theme is anxiety, the corresponding emotion is then anxiety.

Examples of cognitive distortions.

It’s vital that you fully grasp cognitive distortions. I have decided to write an article on each type of distortion to give as much information as possible. I shall be writing in detail about the following distortions.

Black-and-white thinking
This is where you think in absolutes, something is good or bad, right or wrong, and there is little wiggle room for anything in between.

You did not get an interview for a job and think, “no-one will ever employ me.” This is an example of overgeneralising, as you have taken one instance and applied that as a rule to everything else that may happen.

I should have gotten that job; I should be perfect at everything I do. These thoughts are rarely helpful as you are casting judgement and criticising yourself.

Not getting a job interview and thinking I will never get a job is also an example of catastrophising. Based on one instance, you predict an adverse event, a catastrophe.

It is my fault I did not get the job. You blame yourself without taking into consideration other factors.

It’s my parent’s fault I did not get the job; they did not encourage me enough at school.

Discounting the positives
My job application was poor; I had nothing to offer. You completely discount the positive aspects of your application and attempt to gain employment.

I am stupid. You apply harsh labels to yourself.

Emotional reasoning
Feelings and thoughts are closely connected, and you might be using the distortion of emotional reasoning when you see emotions as facts. For example, you felt very anxious when completing the job application, and after not getting an interview, I knew it; I should never have applied.

Mind Reading
The company thought I was a joke for even applying. You assume you know what others think without evidence to support this claim.

Why is it important to be aware of cognitive distortions?

Emotions, including anxiety, have a mental theme running through them. Learning to spot this pattern, and then change it, helps you change the feeling.

The following article will look at negative automatic thoughts.

  1. Aaron Beck was an American psychiatrist and considered the father of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. You can read more about him at The Beck Institute.
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