Cognitive Distortions and its impact on your Mental Well-being
Updated: Jan 18, 2021
"I am so unlucky, nothing ever works out in my favour. "
"There is no point trying, I fail at everything I do. "
"She didn't reply my message. She's obviously ignoring me because she does not like me."
The above thoughts are common examples of cognitive distortion. These are habitual errors in the way we think and it can have a significant impact on our mental well-being. Usually these thinking patterns are negatively skewed and create an inaccurate depiction of reality. The constant negative thoughts result in an overall negative perception of themselves, the world and their future creating a state of helplessness, and leading to negative emotional and mental experiences. Though we are all likely to occasionally have cognitive distortions, if you are constantly experiencing thoughts that are negatively biased and inaccurate; you are increasing the likelihood of these thinking patterns being reinforced. Overtime, these erroneous thinking patterns can lead to negative emotions and thoughts thereby increasing your risk of mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, and impacting your quality of life including your relationships.
There are multiple types of cognitive distortion, a few of the most common ones are listed below:
Cognitive Distortions Examples
All or nothing thinking – you see things black and white. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure
Over generalisation – you see a single negative event as never-ending pattern of defeat
Mental Filter – you pick out single negative details and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened
Disqualifying positives – you reject positive experiences by insisting they ‘don’t count’ for some reason or other. In this way, you can maintain a negative belief that is actually contradicted by your everyday experiences
Jumping to conclusion – you make negative intepretations, though there are no definite facts that convincingly support a conclusion
Mind reading – you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and you don’t bother to check this out
The fortune teller error – you anticipate things that will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is already established fact
Mangification/Catastrophising or minimisation – you exaggerate the importance of things (e.g. someone else’s achievement) or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (e.g. your own desirable qualities or someone else's imperfections), also known as binocular trick
Emotional Reasoning – you assume that your negative emotions reflect the way things really are e.g. "I feel it, therefore it must be true."
Should Statements: you try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’t as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything, musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements towards other, you feel anger, frustration and resentment
Labbeling and mislabelling – this is an extreme form of generalisation. Instead of describing the error, you attach a negative label to yourself (e.g."I am a loser"), when someone else’s behaviour rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him (e.g. "He's good for nothing, loser") , mislabelling involves describing an event with language that is highly coloured and emotionally loaded
Personalisation – you see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which, in fact you were not primarily responsible for.
Self worth – you make an arbitrary decision that , in order to accept yourself as worthy or ok or simple to feel good about yourself, you have to perform in a certain way.
How can you change these distortions?
Recognising cognitive distortions, challenging and changing them is the key approach of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy ( a common and effective treatment for range of mental health illnesses).
If you are willing to visit a mental health professional they can teach practical techniques and tools that will support you in developing key life skills for better mental health, some of which are listed below:
Identifying the cognitive distortion - as with anything, the first step would be to understand the problem; what your cognitive distortions are. List down all the negative/irrational thoughts that you have throughout a day. This will give you a good idea if you have a tendency towards certain cognitive distortions or whether they are related to a particularly person(s) and/or situation(s)
Examine the evidence - often if you reflect back on a certain incident you may realise your thinking is negatively skewed and there is no objective evidence to support your thoughts. Consider the following: Do your thoughts reflect objective facts? or is it merely an opinon? E.g. "Everybody hates me." " I am a failure" are subjective opinions about yourself whereas "I got scolded by my boss today" , "I was late for class again" are objective facts. Seperating fact from opinion can help identify the root of your cognitive distortions ( your thoughts/opinions) and therefore give you an area to focus your efforts
Treat yourself as you would a friend - often people have a tendency to speak internally to themselves in a harsh/unforgiving manner yet if a friend came to you with a similar problem, they would handle it with more compassion and kindness. E.g. Imagine your friend is anxious about an upcoming exam you would tell them " I believe in you. You have studied really hard and you are smart. You will get through this and get the grades you want" however if it were yourself you may think " I am going to fail, I dont know anything, I might as well quit." If you speak to yourself in the same tone you would a friend, it can give you the confidence and motivation to continue studying and hopefully get your desired outcome.
Shades of Grey - often we look at situations as Black and White but there are many shades of grey in-between, try to consider these in any situation. E.g. If you are on a diet and you have a cheat meal that does not negate the consistency you have kept for the last 2 months of dieting, instead of viewing it as a 100% failure, it actually has a less than 1% impact on your diet and you can easily get back on track.
Experiment - Whatever your irrational belief is, it can be tested to see if it is an actual reflection of reality. E.g. If you believe your friends dislike you cause you have not heard from them. You can directly invite them for something and see if they respond. Your lack of communication could be a result of their busy schedules rather than their dislike for you. Similarly, if you feel something is "too hard" break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks and see if those can be completed.
Semantics - often the words we use can have a significant impact on us. We often say "I must" "I should" "I have to" putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves. Instead be kinder and use word such as "It would be nice if.." "It would be great if.." "Imagine how good it would be if.." rephrasing puts less guilt if the goal isn't achieved yet provides motivation as it is a desired outcome.
Re-attribution - often people place blame on themselves for situations completely out of their control and perhaps only partially their fault. If you take a step back from a situation, you can objectively consider other factors that may have resulted in the incident. This also helps in effective problem solving whereby you focus on a solution rather than demeaning yourself. E.g. If you were working on a group project with 5 other members and your team failed the assignment. It is not 100% your fault but 1/5 of your fault. Also it does not mean your team is stupid, perhaps you did not spend enough time on the assignment or you misunderstood it.
Cognitive Restructure - make it a habit to question your thoughts, is this based on fact? is there an alternative explanation? is there a more rational/kind/positive way in which this can be reframed e.g. Rather than thinking " She ignored me, she doesn't like me" perhaps you could think "She looks rather busy, she didn't notice me. Wonder if she needs any help."
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Disclaimer: The following information is not a suitable replacement for therapy or professional help. Mental health is very complex and there are various individual differences due to circumstances, genetics and life experience. All information published has been generalised and done in good faith. However, we will not be liable for any actions taken as a result of this website/post. If you are facing mental health concerns, it is important you reach out to a professional. You may also contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for further support.