Cognitive distortions. What are they? Why are they important? Are you speaking Italian?!!
“Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but only make us feel bad about ourselves.”
To put it simply, it’s like fake news. It’s the stories we continue to tell ourselves that aren’t true. And they can affect every aspect of our lives negatively if we don’t keep them in check.
Throughout my years of therapy I’d been handed many wordy, overwhelming worksheets and charts that explained all this, but with my brain already struggling to make sense of anything during that stressful time, I yearned for someone to tell it to me straight, like a friend would. I needed a friend in that dark time in my life, one who understood the frustration and confusion and complexity of it all. That’s my goal, my service to you. I will do my best to provide that valuable insight as only a friend would.
Over the next couple weeks I’m going to break down the 15 most common thought distortions as simply as I can. All of us have struggled with negative self-talk at some point or another, whether we realize it or not. Those of us who have struggled with anxiety and depression have carried the crushing weight of negative thought patterns without even knowing it. Luckily for us, neuroscience has proved that the brain has the ability to change, just like any muscle in our body. This is called neuroplasticity. If we do the exercises, we can potentially “build” our brain muscles and improve our mental health and well-being.
But like anything in life, it’s not an easy fix. If you start a workout program to try to loose weight, it takes time, right? You don’t see results right away. You may get discouraged and want to quit. Same goes for retraining our thoughts. It takes time and effort to see results. It also takes persistence and maintenance work. The first step is learning what areas we need to work on.
Our bodies yearn for balance in order to thrive. If we are off-balance in one or more aspects of our lives, we start to suffer. Stress takes over and we begin to deteriorate. There are so many pieces to the puzzle. But training our thought patterns to work for us and not against us, is just as important as taking care of our physical bodies.
Lately I feel I’ve been slipping ever so slowly back into old thought patterns. It’s a tricky thing to realize, but when those old familiar panic triggers start to flare up and creep into my day to day, I know that I need to get to work.
For example, the other day I was driving somewhere, and I felt my nerves start to fire up and my thoughts drift off to that place of fear and panic. It was an old, deep-rooted trigger (one of hundreds my mind had mapped out over years of uncontrolled anxiety). A certain stretch of road was all it took to bring me back to that place. It happened so fast. My throat dried up, I started desperately grasping for something to steady my fearful thoughts. When I am quickly flooded with panic, I feel like I can’t get enough air. I crack the window, turn down the AC, fumble for a sip of water. These impulsive reactions that are hard to explain, but it’s just the coping mechanisms my brain tells my body when it is triggered by a negative feedback loop.
Ten years ago, when I didn’t know what was going on in my brain, I would’ve completely panicked. My body would’ve been taken over with terrifying, uncomfortable sensations; heart racing, arms and legs tingling, unable to breathe, dizziness, tight jaw, dry mouth. All while trying to maintain a vehicle on a busy interstate. I would’ve ruminated all day on what had happened, felt tremendous shame and isolation, and wondered how I was ever going to live like this. Oh, and I wouldn’t have mentioned it to anyone. Looking back, it’s no wonder I was afraid to drive on the highway for years!
Today, however, there is no mystery in all this. I know what I’m dealing with, exactly what cruel trick my mind is trying to play on me, and even though this is not a welcome battle in my mind, I have to remember how to manage this bombardment of fake news that is flooding my brain. I dig into my toolbox at that moment; I reach for my lavender oil, take some deep breaths, intentionally switch my train of thoughts to the positive. I practice present-moment awareness and become an observor to my surroundings; the feel of the steering wheel, the music, the cool air blowing from the vents. Most importantly I remember not to stop the anxiety from happening, but give it space to rise and fall, knowing that it will end as quickly as it began. This is the hardest part, trusting this process. But it has been a vital part of changing my feedback loop to be able to manage these moments of panic that will always be lurking around a dark corner. It is disappointing and discouraging to be back in this dark, scary place, but now that I’ve found ways to deal with my anxiety constructively, I must trust that I can do it again.
These moments are discouraging, sure, but they are invaluable messages that remind me that I need to get to work. As I’ve mentioned before, there is no cure for anxiety, only management. It will creep back in, but I have the power and the tools to keep it from taking over as much as it has in the past.
The mind is a funny, fickle little thing. It can trick you into thinking all sorts of false realities. It can make you think you are in real danger when in fact you are not. Worry, dread, phobias, panic: all contrived stories we tell ourselves, all fake news. So how do we keep these scary stories tucked away, up high on a shelf, witholding the urge to reach for them?
Again, we circle back to good old cognitive distortions.
Let’s think of an example so that we can explore the different types of distortions. Let’s say there’s a high-school girl named Sarah. Sarah has just moved across town and is starting at a new school. She is extremely self-conscience already and is nervous about this new environment. On one of her first days there, she has to stand up in front of one of her classes and introduce herself. Here are some of the thoughts going on in her head when she is told she has to do this.
“Oh my gosh, if I don’t do this perfectly, I am ruined!” – All or Nothing Thinking (Black and White Thinking)
“Ugh I should’ve worn a cuter outfit! I look so lame” – Mental Filter (discounting the positive and focusing on the negative)
“The other kids will think I am so dumb. I’m going to have no friends. ” –Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading and Fortune Telling)
“I am so humiliated, so I must be an idiot.” –Emotional Reasoning (thinking that because we feel a certain way that it’s true)
“I am such a loser.” –Labeling (assigning labels to ourselves or others)
“I always make a fool out of myself”-Overgeneralization (seeing a pattern based on a single event)
“My hair looks pretty good today, but that just doesn’t matter anyway.” –Discounting the Positive
“I am never going to have any friends at this school.” –Magnification (catastrophising)
“I should have never agreed to do this. I must be sure to never to do this again.” –Should/Must/Ought statements
“I must’ve done something wrong to deserve this kind of embarrassment.” –Personalization/self-blame
Do you see what poor Sarah has done to herself? She has let her mind take this one small moment and turn it against her. She feels terrible and self-defeated. Yes, talking in front of people is one of the most anxiety-producing things a person can do, but the way we think about it has the tendency to make it either better or worse. Wouldn’t you want to know how to cope with public speaking in a more helpful way?
It is so much harder for a teenager to hone in and dissect this dangerous way of thinking, as their brains are still developing. But knowing what I know now, I wish I had these tools as a child! What a difference a mindfulness practice would’ve made!
Pay attention to your thoughts towards yourself and towards other. Do you find yourself falling into any of these mind traps? I know I still struggle daily. But once we can start recognizing our unhelpful thoughts, we can work at changing them for the better. It takes time and patience, but it can be done!
Don’t let your mind betray you. With the right tools and a little practice, you will find yourself at the winning end of the battle in your mind!
And no, that’s not a distorted thought. 😉