Cognitive Distortions and Stress

How Cognitive Distortions Can Fuel Your Stress

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When you think about your life, it is quite possible that your mind is playing tricks on you that can distort your view. Cognitive distortions -- where your mind puts a ‘spin’ on the events you see and attaches a not-so-objective interpretation to what you experience -- happen all the time. They are especially common in people with depression and other mood disorders.

Psychologist Aaron T. Beck originally came up with the theory of cognitive distortions in the 1960s, and many therapists since then have helped clients live more positive lives by hunting down their cognitive distortions and correcting them.

(It’s one of the tenets of a very successful and fast-working mode of therapy called cognitive therapy.)

When you know what to be on the lookout for, it becomes rather easy to spot the cognitive distortions in others. It may be a little more challenging to spot your own, but it is possible. Doing so usually brings lasting positive change in the way you experience stressors in your life.

An interesting thing to note is that several cognitive distortions can actually work to your advantage. The key is to know when and how to do so. See this article on traits of optimists for the secrets to cognitive distortion success.

Here are the 10 most common (and officially recognized) cognitive distortions, with examples of how they relate to stress. You might find yourself smiling as you recognize one or two as familiar "friends." If, in the coming days, you look for them and gently correct them, you’ll be well on your way to reducing your reactivity to the stress in your life.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

This type of distortion is the culprit when people think in extremes, with no gray areas or middle ground. All-or-nothing thinkers often use words like "always" and "never" when describing things. “I always get stuck in traffic!” “My bosses never listen to me!” This type of thinking can magnify the stressors in your life, making them seem like bigger problems than they may, in reality, be.

Overgeneralization

Those prone to overgeneralization tend to take isolated events and assume that all future events will be the same. For example, an overgeneralizer who faces a rude sales clerk may start believing that all sales clerks are rude and that shopping will always be a stressful experience.

Mental Filter

Those who tend toward mental filtering may gloss over positive events and hold a magnifying glass to the negative. Ten things can go right, but a person operating under the influence of a mental filter may only notice the one thing that goes wrong. (Add a little overgeneralization and all-or-nothing thinking to the equation, and you have a recipe for stress.)

Disqualifying the Positive

Similar to mental filtering, those who disqualify the positive tend to treat positive events like flukes, thereby clinging to a more negative world view and set of low expectations for the future. Have you ever tried to help a friend solve a problem, only to have every solution you pose shot down with a "Yeah but..." response?

You’ve witnessed this cognitive distortion firsthand.

Jumping to Conclusions

People do this one all the time. Rather than letting the evidence bring them to a logical conclusion, they set their sights on a conclusion (often negative) and then look for evidence to back it up, ignoring evidence to the contrary. The kid who decides that everyone in his new class will hate him, and ‘knows’ that they’re only acting nice to him in order to avoid punishment, is jumping to conclusions. Conclusion-jumpers can often fall prey to mind reading (where they believe that they know the true intentions of others without talking to them) and fortune telling (predicting how things will turn out in the future and believing these predictions to be true). Can you think of examples of adults you know who do this? I bet you can.

Magnification and Minimization

Similar to mental filtering and disqualifying the positive, this cognitive distortion involves placing a stronger emphasis on negative events and downplaying the positive ones. The customer service representative who only notices the complaints of customers and fails to notice positive interactions is a victim of magnification and minimization. Another form of this distortion is known as catastrophizing, where one imagines and then expects the worst possible scenario.

It can lead to a lot of stress.

Emotional Reasoning

This one is a close relative of jumping to conclusions in that it involves ignoring certain facts when drawing conclusions. Emotional reasoners will consider their emotions about a situation as evidence rather than objectively looking at the facts. “I’m feeling completely overwhelmed, therefore, my problems must be completely beyond my ability to solve them,” or, “I’m angry with you; therefore, you must be in the wrong here,” are both examples of faulty emotional reasoning. Acting on these beliefs as fact can, understandably, contribute to even more problems to solve.

Should Statements

Those who rely on ‘should statements’ tend to have rigid rules, set by themselves or others, that always need to be followed -- at least in their minds. They don’t see flexibility in different circumstances, and they put themselves under considerable stress trying to live up to these self-imposed expectations.

If your internal dialogue involves a large number of ‘shoulds,’ you may be under the influence of this cognitive distortion.

Labeling and Mislabeling

Those who label or mislabel will habitually place labels that are often inaccurate or negative on themselves and others. “He’s a whiner.” “She’s a phony.” “I’m just a useless worrier.” These labels tend to define people and contribute to a one-dimensional view of them, paving the way for overgeneralizations to move in.

Labeling cages people into roles that don’t always apply and prevents us from seeing people (ourselves included) as we really are. It’s also a big no-no in relationship conflicts.

Personalization

Those who personalize their stressors tend to blame themselves or others for things over which they have no control, creating stress where it need not be. Those prone to personalization tend to blame themselves for the actions of others or blame others for their own feelings.

If any of these feel a little too familiar, that’s a good thing: recognizing a cognitive distortion is the first step of moving past it. See this article for tips on cognitive restructuring, the process of moving beyond cognitive distortions.

Source:
Burns, David, M.D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Avon Books:New York, NY, 1992.

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