Next time you are experiencing negative thinking, take a moment to check your thoughts, notice, and make some observations. More often than not, you will find that your brain is full of negativity. There is a huge correlation between what we think and feel, and when are struggling or feeling unhappy, our thoughts can be rather dramatic or absolute – such as “I can’t do anything right” or “no one likes me.” These types of thoughts are referred to as cognitive distortions or thinking errors, in the therapeutic world with nerds like me that study the brain. The term means that “you are thinking about something that doesn’t necessarily match the reality of what’s going on” (Jacobson, S, 2019).
The Negative Thought Loop
It’s important to understand that engaging in cognitive distortions can lead you into an unhealthy negative thought loop of rumination. This can cause us to feel stuck and spiral into a negative place that is hard to get out of. For this reason, cognitive distortions are typically present for individuals that struggle with anxiety, or low self-esteem and moods.
What Does the Loop Look Like?
These cognitive distortions “affect your feelings and body sensations, which then combine to dictate your behavior.” Your behavior will typically trigger the next thought, which leads to this same cycle happening again and again. Here is an example of the aforementioned negative thought from the paragraph above – “no one likes me.”
Attaching and fusing yourself to a belief such as “no one likes me” can lead to you feeling anxious and self-conscious around other people (feelings), which then leads you to sweat and have a racing heart (body sensations). Next, this causes you to withdraw from others (behavior), which then results in you feeling left out, alienated, and undesired by others. Then, these feelings lead you to other similar negative thought processes such as “there is something wrong with me” and you will be back at square one where the entire process and cycle will start all over again.
Don’t Do This to Yourself
Cognitive distortions are at the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and work that therapists (like me!) do in session with their clients. If you can recognize when you are thinking and feeling these negative thoughts, you will eventually be able to replace them with more adaptive narratives and ways of thinking. A therapist can help to lead you in the right direction, but ideally, the goal is to replace the extreme negative thoughts with a more balanced thinking process that involves more flexibility and fewer assumptions.
Ten Common Distortions
If you want more examples of what cognitive distortions look like, check out these ten common distortions and think about how they may resonate with you.
All or Nothing Thinking
This involves thinking of things in terms of black or white. Common terms that are used when utilizing all or nothing thinking are: always, never, or every. Not everything is a success or failure and there needs to be room for some gray matter in-between the black and white.
Jumping to Conclusions
Individuals that jump to conclusions often make a negative interpretation or prediction without evidence to back it up.
Overgeneralization includes seeing a singular unpleasant event as evidence of everything being negative or awful, or perhaps a prediction that everything will go wrong.
Magnifying or Minimizing
When magnifying or minimizing, individuals exaggerate the importance of negative events and downplay the significance of positive ones.
Check out part two to this blog series to learn about the rest of the ten cognitive distortions that people typically practice.
Jacobson, S. (2019). Cognitive distortions (thinking errors). Retrieved from: https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/cognitive-distortions-cbt.htm