We all experience cognitive distortions, and the question arises how to successfully recognize them. Recognizing cognitive distortions is the first step in dealing with them. But first, how and why do cognitive distortions occur at all?
How do cognitive distortions occur?
Each of us has some basic beliefs that shape the way we think. They are often overly generalized, rigid and applied “globally”. In contrast, automatic thoughts are situation-specific. These two types of thoughts are connected by assumptions, rules of thought and our attitudes. They arise in the process of searching for meaning in the world around us. The automatic thoughts we experience arise because of the underlying beliefs, assumptions, rules of thought and attitudes we have. Our deeper beliefs actually add some meaning and significance to everything that happens around us. Evolutionarily speaking, making generalized conclusions was much more cost-effective and efficient for survival than an individual analysis of each small event we witnessed. Cognitive distortions are often negative because throughout human history it has generally been more cost effective to be skeptical and somewhat pessimistic, and such a way of thinking has increased the likelihood of survival.
How does cognitive restructuring work?
Restructuring is a technique of cognitive behavioral therapy that aims to stop cognitive distortions. It is something that must become a habit over time, and it involves consciously changing our feelings while cognitive distortions are present. Restructuring allows us to deal with the situation in a more efficient and positive way, which allows us to grow and develop as a person. We carry out cognitive restructuring in several steps:
- Learn to recognize cognitive distortions: Whenever we see something in a negative way, we must actively focus on that thought in order to recognize it as cognitive distortion.
- Evaluate the evidence: When a negative thought occurs, we need to write down everything that confirms that negative thought, but also everything that disputes it. When we see the positive sides of a situation written in front of us, it helps us orient ourselves to them and see the situation in a more positive way.
- Have compassion for yourself: Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we are worthwhile and that we are not incompetent or a bad person. We cannot experience positive interaction with the world around us until we develop compassion for ourselves. Sometimes we need to encourage ourselves out loud, as silly as it may sound to us.
Cognitive restructuring allows us in the short term to focus on positive thoughts, and to move the way of thinking towards the positive. Long-term cognitive restructuring can affect our mood in a positive way. Looking for the positive sides of any situation is something that needs to be actively practiced, but over time it becomes automatic and has a number of positive consequences on our daily lives.
What is the ABC – DE method?
This is a method aimed at identifying and coping with cognitive distortions. This method is often given as homework as part of cognitive behavioral therapy. Sometimes it is difficult to perform the steps in this method in exactly this order, but this is the recommended sequence of steps in dealing with cognitive distortions:
- A – activating event: This is an event that is the trigger for the appearance of thoughts that negatively affect our emotions. It is often difficult to identify.
- B – belief: This is probably the hardest step of the method, the identification of beliefs that creates cognitive distortions related to an event.
- C – consequences: The result is often the easiest to identify because it encourages us to apply this method, it is actually a problem that we’re trying to solve with this method.
- D – disputing irrational beliefs: After the identification of the first three elements we have to look at the situation as a whole, seek to identify negative and positive elements so we can prove the inaccuracy of our cognitive distortions.
- E – effective substitutions: After we have challenged the irrational belief, it is necessary to create a new assumption, which is closer to the truth, and to replace with it the original thought that stimulates negative emotions in us.
How else can we deal with cognitive distortions?
In addition to these two clearly structured methods of coping with cognitive distortions, there are some individual steps we can apply on a daily basis to reduce the impact of distortions.
- Think actively about your thoughts. Stay away from the event that is bothering you and try to analyze it.
- Try to replace black and white extremes with nuance. Instead of “always” and “never”, think in terms of “sometimes” and “maybe”
- Look for positives in every situation. This needs to be practiced but over time it becomes an automatic process.
- Ask yourself if there is evidence of what you are thinking and what is bothering you at the moment.
- Do not label yourself and others as a whole, but label specific behaviors.
In case your independent work on cognitive distortions was not useful, you always have the opportunity to seek professional help. Cognitive behavioral therapy is extremely effective in dealing with cognitive distortions. A psychotherapist can help you develop realistic expectations and can guide you in dealing with cognitive distortions. The perspective of another person who has experience with cognitive distortions can in itself be extremely useful to us in identifying and combating cognitive distortions.
Casabianca, S. S. (2021, May 6). 15 cognitive distortions to blame for your negative thinking. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/cognitive-distortions-negative-thinking#how-to-stop.
Cognitive distortions: Unhelpful thinking habits. Psychology Tools. (2021, May 30). https://www.psychologytools.com/articles/unhelpful-thinking-styles-cognitive-distortions-in-cbt/.
Higgins, L. (2021, July 12). Cognitive reframing: Overcoming cognitive distortions with reframing. The Couch: A Therapy & Mental Wellness Blog. https://blog.zencare.co/cognitive-reframing-distortions/.
How to overcome cognitive distortions – steps recovery centers. Steps Recovery Centers – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment. (2020, February 3). https://www.stepsrc.com/how-to-overcome-cognitive-distortions/.
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