How to recognize and tame your cognitive distortions

Two things I’ve done, in different fields, seem to require entirely different skills, but I discovered an unexpected overlap. The first is overcoming a vicious addiction to prescription painkillers, and the second is training to become a health and wellness coach. Common skills and practices from both experiences include

  • a focus on gratitude for what is going well in my life and for those around me
  • mindfulness and presence in the moment
  • adopt healthy habits: exercise, good nutrition and, ideally, sleep (this is not my specialty!)
  • relationship with others, open and honest communication, and empathy, including self-empathy.

Additionally, an essential part of achieving the serenity and focus needed to be a wellness coach and to overcome addiction is learning to recognize and defuse the cognitive distortions that we all use. Cognitive distortions are internal mental filters or biases that increase our misery, fuel our anxiety, and make us feel bad about ourselves. Our brain continuously processes a lot of information. To cope with this, our brain looks for shortcuts to reduce our mental load. Sometimes these shortcuts are useful, but in other circumstances, like with those useless cognitive filters, they can cause more harm than good.

Unnecessary Thoughts and Why We Do It

Ruminative thinking—negative thought patterns that cycle through our minds—is common in many psychiatric disorders. This type of thinking also contributes to the unhappiness and alienation that many people feel. It is certainly not necessary to have a psychiatric diagnosis to ruminate unnecessarily. Most of us do this to some degree in response to our anxieties about certain situations and challenges. Rumination can represent a continuous attempt to come up with ideas or solutions to problems that concern us. Unfortunately, with the presence of these cognitive filters, it can escalate into a counterproductive and depression-aggravating type of brooding. These unnecessary filters make the life circumstances in which we find ourselves much more anxiety-provoking and challenging.

What are unnecessary cognitive distortions?

The main cognitive distortions are the following (and some of them overlap):

Thinking in black and white (or all or nothing): I never have anything interesting to say.

Jump to conclusions (or read minds): The doctor is going to tell me that I have cancer.

Personalization: Our team lost because of me.

Should-be and should-be (using self-critical language that puts a lot of pressure on you): I should lose weight.

Mental filter (focusing on the negative, like the one aspect of a health change you didn’t do well): I struggle to sleep enough.

Over-generalization: I will never find a partner.

Magnification and minimization (magnifying the negative, minimizing the positive): It was just a healthy meal.

Fortune telling: My cholesterol will skyrocket.

Comparison (comparing just one part of your performance or situation to another, which you don’t really know, so that it makes you appear in a negative light): All my colleagues are happier than me.

Catastrophizing (combination of clairvoyance and all-or-nothing thinking; blowing things out of proportion): This patch on my skin is probably skin cancer; I will soon be dead.

Labeling: I’m just not a healthy person.

Disqualify the positive: I answered well, but it was a chance.

Emotional reasoning and disregard of facts

Finally, many of us engage in emotional reasoning, a process in which our negative feelings about ourselves inform our thoughts, as if they were based on facts, in the absence of any facts to support these unpleasant feelings. In other words, your emotions and feelings about a situation become your actual view of the situation, independent of any information to the contrary. Emotional reasoning often uses many other cognitive filters to support it, such as catastrophizing and disqualifying the positive. Examples of this can think:

  • I am a whale even if you lose weight
  • I’m a bad student even if you have good grades
  • My partner is cheating on me even if there is no evidence for it (jealousy defines your reality)
  • Nobody loves Me, even if you have friends (loneliness informs your thinking).

How do you challenge and modify cognitive distortions?

A big part of dismantling our cognitive distortions is simply being aware of them and paying attention to how we frame things for ourselves. Good mental habits are as important as good physical habits. If we frame things in a healthy, positive way, we will almost certainly experience less anxiety and isolation. This doesn’t mean that we ignore problems, challenges, or feelings, just that we approach them with a positive attitude instead of letting our thoughts and feelings amplify our anxiety.

As someone who was an expert at getting tripped up by all those filters, I learned to remember that no matter what, I’ll deal with it as best I can. I try to trust my future self to deal effectively with whatever life throws at me. As such, there is no reason to worry about potential future issues here and now. If I’m worried about what might happen, then I have two problems: whatever hypothetical challenge that might not even come up in the future and a lot of unnecessary anxiety to deal with. As they say in the sci-fi masterpiece Dunes, “Fear is the mind killer.” Being anxious or being scared definitely makes me less effective at whatever I’m trying to accomplish.

A wise therapist once told me, as an example, that if someone cuts you off in traffic, they just cut a random car, not you, because they have no idea who you are. So there is no reason to take it personally. Personalizing situations like this makes you feel upset. If you don’t take it personally, it goes from “jerk cut me” to “people should drive more carefully”.

I also avoid unnecessary catastrophizing (although this can be difficult thinking about everything going on in our world, including climate change). Above all, I try not to slip into emotional reasoning. None of us are devoid of all the emotions that could undermine our logical processes. Everyone backs off and falls into old habits. We aim for progress, not perfection.

If you manage to free yourself from these unnecessary cognitive filters, you will be more successful, you will be more relaxed and you will be able to better enjoy your relationships.

Getting help dealing with cognitive distortions

If you need help resolving difficult cognitive distortions, professionals such as therapists and coaches are qualified to help people change their unhelpful ways of thinking. If you are unable to find or pay for a therapist or coach, other resources are available such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy apps, mutual support groups , group therapy or group coaching (which can be less expensive than individual treatment). ), employee assistance programs through your work or online communities. Your GP or health insurance can help connect you to other resources.


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