Mind Tricks: Cognitive Distortions

One of the main components of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is learning to recognize flaws in our thinking, or cognitive distortions. If you’ve ever looked at yourself in a funhouse mirror, you may already know more about cognitive distortions than you realize. When you see yourself in that mirror, is that really you? Are those your eyes? Is that your nose? Are those your feet? Yes, of course! The problem is that it is not an accurate reflection of you. It is a distortion of reality.

Our thoughts have a way of playing tricks on us and causing us to see problems that may not actually be there. Most of us have made assumptions about what another person may be thinking, or predictions that a future event will go horribly wrong. These thoughts often cause great distress in the form of anxiety, fear, or sadness. It becomes hard to feel good if we truly believe a person dislikes us based on the tone of their voice, or if we expect to fail at an important task.

Once we have been hurt by a situation once, the mind has a way of predicting that we will get hurt again in similar situations. This tends to lead to the development of patterns of negative, or distorted thinking. For example, if I once lost a job after being called into an unscheduled meeting with my supervisor, I may feel a sense of dread or anxiety any time in the future I am called into a meeting. This dread may persist despite only one of numerous meetings leading to termination of my job. My mind has created expectations based on one bad past experience.

In general, the mind seeks to protect us from harm, hence the development of these expectations. If I was hurt once in the past after being called into a meeting, my mind wants to protect me from getting hurt again, and thus triggers a sense of fear or anxiety in similar future situations. When the mind senses danger, it causes us to feel anxious or afraid, and asks us to take action to ensure our safety. If we do not feel those emotions, we may not recognize that we are at risk. Unfortunately, this warning system can often be misleading and cause us to perceive threat where there is none.

It can be very helpful to catch ourselves in distorted thinking. For some, the act of acknowledging that a thought could be inaccurate is enough to ease distress. We can accomplish this by noticing the thoughts that cause distress in the first place, then asking “How do I know that’s true?” In the example of having a meeting with a supervisor, I realize that I simply do not know why my supervisor requested a meeting, therefore there is no guarantee that I have done something wrong. That warning system may still be activated, but I may no longer feel it as intensely.

The next step in handling cognitive distortions is to find a way to test them. In this case, going to the meeting and finding out what the supervisor wanted to discuss. Once I know I am not in trouble, I can relax. For some, challenging cognitive distortions is a process that requires repetition and practice over time. In future entries, we will explore in more detail different types of distorted thinking and how to reframe them in ways that are closer to accurate reflections of reality.

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