"I can't do anything." "I'm not good enough." "There's something wrong with me." Cognitive distortions can claw at our self-esteem, leaving us feeling anxious and inadequate. Learn how to halt harmful thinking in its tracks—so that you can get back to being the best you that you can be.
Have you ever overcooked the chicken, only to think you can’t do anything right? This is a cognitive distortion: a sneaky way our minds convince us of things that aren’t true. We all engage in cognitive distortions sometimes, but in excess they can be harmful to our health.
What are cognitive distortions?
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate, negatively biased thought patterns that affect our feelings and behaviours. Imagine that a woman decides to take up tennis, but she struggles to learn the different strokes. She jumps to the conclusion that “I fail at everything I try,” which generates such strong feelings of anxiety that she withdraws from trying anything new. This triggers a new cognitive distortion—“There is something inherently wrong with me”—and a seemingly endless cycle of irrational thoughts.
Cognitive distortions have been linked to anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and difficulty making decisions. There are ways to mitigate irrational thinking, but first it is helpful to identify some common cognitive distortions, which are outlined by David D. Burns, MD, in The Feeling Good Handbook (Plume, 1999).
These thoughts don’t allow room for shades of grey; for example, “If I eat one piece of cake, my healthy eating plan will be a complete failure.”
These thoughts occur when we erroneously take things personally or blame ourselves for things we aren’t responsible for. For example, if a colleague fails to smile at us, we assume we have done something to offend her.
Blaming occurs when we fault others while ignoring the contributions of our own attitudes and behaviours. For instance, we attribute an argument with our spouse to his or her stubbornness without taking ownership of our own unwillingness to compromise.
With overgeneralizations, we view a single negative event as the beginning of an infinite cycle of defeat. For example, a falling-out with one friend causes us to decide that all our friendships are in jeopardy.
When we filter, we ruminate on the negative and filter out the positive. For example, we receive mostly positive feedback about a presentation at work, but focus only on the one suggestion that we could have spoken more clearly.
Labelling occurs when we attach negative labels to ourselves and others. Instead of saying, “I messed up on my workout plan,” we might say, “I’m lazy.” Similarly, instead of thinking that someone has hurt us, we might call him a jerk.
Catastrophizing involves expecting the worst outcome and assuming that outcome will be catastrophic and beyond our ability to cope. For example, we anticipate we will miss our connecting flight, which, in turn, will ruin our entire holiday.
Become a healthier thinker
It’s natural to have irrational thoughts sometimes, but when we find ourselves in the spin cycle of cognitive distortions, there are ways to shift toward healthier thinking patterns.
Recognize irrational thoughts
The important, often difficult, first step is simply noticing when we experience irrational thoughts. According to Leah Wilson, a registered clinical counsellor, “It is the act of becoming aware of thought patterns that can signal for us to implement a coping strategy.”
For one week, practise observing when your mind jumps to an irrational thought to discover which distortions you’re particularly prone to and when they’re most likely to pop up.
Challenge the accuracy of thoughts
Having a thought doesn’t make it true, and we can challenge the accuracy of our cognitive distortions by using techniques like this one:
- Create four columns on a piece of paper.
- In the first column, write the irrational thought. (“I’m useless.”)
- In the second column, jot down the factual evidence that supports this thought. (“I missed an important deadline at work.”)
- In the third column, list the evidence that disputes this thought. (“I meet deadlines 90 percent of the time.”)
- In the fourth column, create an alternative, more balanced thought based on the listed evidence. (“Although I feel embarrassed that I missed a deadline, I have a lot on my plate right now. I meet deadlines most of the time and am a valuable employee.”)
Chances are, once you’ve weighed all the facts, your first thought will seem a lot less realistic than you originally believed.
When we make a mistake, instead of calling ourselves stupid, blaming others, or assuming we’re destined for failure, we can try responding to ourselves with kindness.
“Sometimes it’s easier to imagine being compassionate to others, so a helpful first step can be to ask, ‘What would I say to my good friend if she or he were in this situation?’ Then, apply the answer to this question to yourself,” says Wilson.
Mindfulness occurs when we nonjudgmentally and intentionally observe the present moment. Over time, a mindfulness practice can help us develop a greater capacity to choose which thoughts we want to follow and explore and which thoughts we want to let pass by. A 2009 study revealed that a meditation practice helped decrease cognitive distortions in college students, which contributed to a decrease in anxiety and negative emotions and an increase in hope.
Wilson advises, “When you notice that negative thinking patterns are getting in the way of participating in relationships or completing daily tasks, this is a clue that additional support could be helpful.” She adds that seeking counselling is especially important “if negative thought patterns are resulting in destructive coping, such as self-harm or self-medicating (using food, alcohol, sex, drugs, etc.).”
Natural aids to support healthy thinking
Natural treatments can help us feel less anxious, which in turn can decrease our vulnerability to irrational thinking.
- A mug of green tea can decrease heart rate and stress levels.
- The scent of lavender can reduce feelings of anxiety and has been described as an “emotional anti-inflammatory.”
- Lemon balm has been used for centuries as a calming herb and may improve mood and sleep quality. Consult your natural health care practitioner for dosage recommendations.
- Getting hot—in the sauna or the bath or by working up a good sweat—can alter neural circuits in the brain that control cognitive function and mood, helping to decrease anxiety and negative emotions.