Cognitive distortions are irrational or inaccurate thoughts that cause our minds to think negatively about ourselves or others. They are therefore very unhelpful and have a considerable impact on our mental health.
Cognitive distortions are quite common and most of us have experienced irrational thoughts and indulged in a bout of rumination from time to time. Some people however, experience cognitive distortions on a daily basis and when this is the case, help must be sought. There are a number of different types of cognitive distortions; often the thoughts are overgeneralisations or adopt a black and white approach, and sometimes thoughts can be magnified, also known as catastrophising. Catastrophising is where the person focuses purely on the negative, starting a train of ‘what if’ thinking. Often associated with anxiety disorders, these thought patterns can be paralysing and severely impact quality of life.
Some examples of cognitive distortions include; “I always fail at maths and therefore I am a failure.” “Mary doesn’t like me. I think the whole grade hates me” or “What if the plane crashes and we all die.”
How to Stop Cognitive Distortions?
Whichever ‘strand’ of cognitive distortion you are susceptible to, this way of thinking is unhealthy, affecting self-esteem and your perception of the world around you. It can hold you back from succeeding in your career or personal life and lead to an array of mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression. Knowing how to take control of the negative voice inside your head is an important step but the first step is acknowledging that the thoughts are occurring.
Some helpful ways to challenge cognitive distortions:
- Writing a list of the thoughts you have acknowledged as unhelpful and separating them into fact and opinion can assist in understanding your perception versus reality.
- Using relaxation techniques such as breathing, muscle relaxation and imagery to control the body sensations associated with irrational thoughts can be helpful. Exercise is also strongly recommended as a way to relax the mind and body.
- Doing something incompatible to what you do when you’re thinking this way such as forcing yourself to smile or laughing can sometimes break the circuit, particularly if you feel your blood pressure rising.
- Practicing self-compassion can provide you with the positive perspective of a friend and lessen your self-criticism. Self-compassion is the ability, within a state of calm, and with a friendly voice, to reassure ourselves that this is not our fault whilst offering a forgiving hand.
- Thinking in the spectrum of a rainbow rather than in black and white can help provide a more diverse perspective when polarising thoughts creep in. There need not be one answer or a right or wrong to any given scenario.
- Don’t conquer your thoughts alone. Psychologists are here to help and guide you in the emotional journey of life. One of the most well-known psychological practices for overcoming irrational thoughts or cognitive distortions is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This involves challenging irrational thoughts as they enter the mind and shutting them down as to change action and behaviour. Once the thoughts are being cognitively challenged, the next step as a part of CBT is to develop personalised strategies to replace the negative thought with more helpful thoughts and perceptions.