The word ‘cognition’ describes ‘either a thought or visual image that you may not be aware of unless you focus your attention on it’ (Beck et al., 1979). Cognitions are often automatic. Think of how quickly we can go to the place of “UGH, I am such a loser!” when we’ve made a mistake or can’t quite master something. Visual images can also be as relevant as thoughts – our minds can quickly take us back to unpleasant events from the past when we feel emotionally flooded in the present.
Akin to the mindfulness tenet of labeling emotions without judgement, it is important not to view unhelpful cognitions as “wrong” – oftentimes cognitive distortions stem from helpful and adaptive beliefs from an earlier time. It is amazing how keen our early-life survival instincts are; however, this once adaptive way of being can become our “default switch”, and needs a little tweaking to better serve us in later life.
To start to gain an awareness of cognitive distortions, start paying attention to your reactions (e.g: feeling emotionally flooded; heart racing, sweating, et cetera) to discriminate between feelings and thoughts. A feeling might be “anxious”, the thought associated with that could be “I am in danger. Something bad is going to happen, and I cannot cope”.
How To Challenge Cognitive Distortions
- What evidence do I have that this thought is accurate?
- How can I test my assumptions to find out if they are accurate?
- Is there a trusted individual whom I can ask for insight/feedback on this thought
- How might this thought be limiting me?
- Is my inner-critical voice playing a starring role in my head right now (does this voice sound like a name-calling bully?)
- What or who else contributed to this situation?
- Is this something realistically in my control?
- Am I guilty of practicing all-or-nothing thinking? (situations are rarely black and white – can you consider alternate perceptions?)
- What would I say to a friend in this situation? (practice the self-kindness tenet of Self-Compassion – for more on Self-Compassion see here: https://blacksheepcounselling.com/2017/03/mindfulness-self-compassion/)
- Am I going to the “dark place”? (assuming the worst)
- Am I holding myself to a standard I would not expect of another?
- Could I be making a situation personal, when it isn’t? (e.g: perhaps the brusque cashier does not “hate you”, but instead was upset about something and trying to keep herself from crying)
- Am I disqualifying the positive? (e.g: “he/she is only being nice to me because they want something from me”
- Am I dwelling/fixating on a single thing that went badly in an otherwise successful event? (what happens when you try to “big picture” this situation? – a week/month/year from now, will you remember this?
A common cognitive distortion that occurs is “catastrophizing”. Catastrophizing happens when we predict the very worst. Examples of this might be you thinking you will be fired from your job because your boss inquired to you about an absence away from your desk, or believing you are unworthy of things going right, and therefore you unconsciously self-sabotage, thus “proving” your belief.
To mitigate catastrophizing, start to bring awareness to when you are doing it. You may wish to write it down or record it in your electronic device. As you start to recognize your catastrophizing, consider alternate perspectives. In the work scenario example, perhaps your boss was concerned for your well-being and wanted to check in and ensure you were okay, or maybe they had something they were eager to share with you (like GOOD news).
Recognize that acquiring new healthy ways of being takes time, and consistency (that’s why we call these things a “practice” – no one “arrives” at maintaining optimal well-being!). Be kind to yourself, and remember” “progress, not perfection”.
Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York, NY: Guildford Press.
Westbrook, D., Kennerley, H., & Kirk, J. (2011). An introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy – Skills and applications (2nd ed.). London, England: Sage Publications.