If you've never seen a picture of really good pavement art, you're missing out. Talented artists, using deliberate shading, color choice and contrast, the right point of view, and extreme skill, create illusions that transform an ordinary street into a raging waterfall, a mysterious cavern, or a fearsome pit of fiery lava.
When looked at from the wrong angle, these sometimes terrifying and sometimes alluring deceptions are revealed for what they are. They are exquisite, beautiful drawings, and that is all they are. What looks from a certain perspective like a man about to step out into an abyss is simply a man walking along a sidewalk decorated with a fabulous, but an otherwise flat, sidewalk drawing.
There are other famous examples of optical illusions. In each of them, our eyes send signals to our brain that our brains misinterpretfor us, leaving us with false impressions that can be hard to detect even with scrutiny.
So, while not exactly a technical term, cognitive distortion is a way your mind is "playing tricks" on you. And if you accept that your brain can fool you into seeing things that aren't there or not to see things that are there, it should not be a leap to assert that sometimes in your thinking you see reality through a false lens. This is what "cognitive distortions" mean – distorted thinking. It happens automatically when your brain processes your surrounding environment. Because there's so much information surrounding us, our brains rely on mental shortcuts, which can sometimes cause distorted thinking. Later, we'll talk about ten common cognitive distortions and how to start recognizing and overcoming them.
Why Do Cognitive Distortions Matter?
It is almost impossible to conduct an honest and serious discussion about the existence of cognitive distortions and their impact on mental health without coming back to Dr. David D. Burns. In his groundbreaking book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, Burns elaborates on the idea and practices of Cognitive Therapy, originally explored by Dr. Aaron Beck from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the 1960s.
In his book, Dr.Burns asserts an idea that seems quite obvious but somehow never occurs to many of us. According to Burns, our thoughts are directly responsible for our feelings. Therefore, when someone frequently engages in happy thoughts, they feel happy. However, when someone frequently indulges in negative thoughts, it follows that the person's mood will be negatively affected as well. Or, in other words, thinking unhappy thoughts leads to feeling unhappy feelings. Those who have fallen into a rut of negative thinking often are engaging not just in negative thoughts but cognitive distortions – false negative thoughts. These types of constant, negative, cognitive distortions are unhealthy and can contribute to disorders, such as depression and anxiety.
Cognitive distortions, therefore, matter because they have the power to make you sick in a very real sense.
Common Cognitive Distortions
The good news is that once the problem (cognitive distortion) has been identified as the cause of a person's depression or anxiety they can begin to correct it. An integral component of the healing process is learning to recognize and eliminate cognitive distortions. To that end, Burns provides a list of cognitive distortions. The following is a list, with brief explanations, of the 10 cognitive distortions Burns describes:
Of course, Burns does not stop at simply providing this cognitive distortions list. His book goes on to provide, with detailed explanations, strategies for learning to recognize when you are thinking these inherently distorted thoughts and consequently eliminating them.
If, as you read the above list of cognitive distortions, you began to feel the disconcerting sensation that many of them applied to you, that's not necessarily a bad or unusual thing. As mentioned above, everybody engages in this kind of automatic thinking. It's not good that we get caught up in negative and false thoughts. But it is good to realize when we tend to do it. Now you can begin the work of correcting these destructive thought patterns, and consequently, begin to feel better.
How can you do this? You can always start by conducting an internet search. You'll come up with informative resources on cognitive distortions, cognitive distortions worksheets, and cognitive distortions handouts.
In addition to learning about cognitive distortion, you may find it helpful to jot down your thoughts when you come across them and recognize them. You might start to see a pattern that you can begin to address. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can also be helpful. CBT will help you identify and reframe potentially negative thoughts so that you can respond to them more effectively. If you are serious about tackling and eliminating the cognitive distortions that have caused you so much needless suffering, you might benefit from seeing in-person or online counselor.
How BetterHelp Can Help
A trained therapist can guide you through the process of learning to recognize when you are spiraling into a negative emotional storm of cognitive distortions and teach you how to deal with them effectively. Through whatever therapy your therapist deems appropriate, such as cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, you will learn to recognize when cognitive distortions are happening so that you can adjust your behavior as necessary. BetterHelp has over 4,000 licensed therapists, many of whom specialize in CBT and cognitive distortion issues. With BetterHelp, you can work with counselors from the comfort of your own home and in sessions that fit with your busy schedule. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"I was in a very bad place when I started counseling with Vanessa. I was drowning in my negative thoughts, especially about moving into a new place. Vanessa helped me face these thoughts, counter them. It isn't easy, but I am training myself and getting better at it. She helps boost my confidence in all aspects. In Vanessa, I found guidance, empathy, open-mindedness and a good listener. Vanessa will never fail you!"
"Erika is not just amazing, she is a game changer! I was struggling with lots of negative thoughts and procrastination that was paralyzing me but since I started my sessions with her, I have had breakthroughs. Every time I see her, something miraculous happens. I feel more energetic, clearer and motivated to continue the process of growing and changing. I definitely recommend her. She truly cares and brings tons of positive vibes into the sessions."
It can be hard to accept when the misinformation is not just in our physical perceptions but stems from our very thought processes themselves. If Descartes said "I think. Therefore, I am," then what does it say when we cannot rely on our thoughts? But it is that very type of thinking that is part of the problem. That is why having access to an outside and objective person in the form of a therapist can be so important to the recovery process.
Reading the above list of common cognitive distortions and finding yourself in them can be a painful yet powerful experience. Painful, because you must admit to yourself that you have a problem. But powerful, because now you know there is a way to fix it. Take the first step today.