Updated: Apr 11
Cognitive distortions may be the reason why you and the whole country is stressed out of your gourd! More times than not, stress is manufactured by how your brain processes the world around you (whether it be fact or fiction). Read more to see how cognitive distortions are not reality and how they may be getting in your way of living a more enjoyable, less stressed life.
Have you ever called yourself stupid, a loser, a waste of space?! Or maybe you have told yourself that you would never amount to anything, that you will never get that promotion, find the perfect relationship or that you will never be satisfied with your life...
If you are a human, the answer is most likely “yes.” Yes, you and almost everyone in the developed world has muttered to themselves a combination of negative and self-defeating words. *This is why 1 in 5 American's will experience a mental health problem every 12 months.
But why? Why do we repetitively impart on such negatives behaviors onto ourselves? Is there a benefit to such negative consequences? Is it because we learn these “skills” from our parents at a young age and can’t help it? Is there an evolutionary advantage for saying Fu#K or Sh!t every time we drop a pen or stub a toe?!
Why the heck do we do such wacky things if there is no logical explanation for doing so?
From a by-standers point of view all of the above can be comedic release. However, decades of research shows that cognitive distortions are not a healthy way to make the people around you laugh. They can lead to a spiraling of negative thinking, disarming anxiety or deep, painful bouts of depression and other unhealthy coping strategies.
In this post I am exploring and uncovering the myths and the facts behind cognitive distortions: what are they? why do they exist? and how do they become so reflexive that we don’t even know when they are happening?!
The answers to these questions start with the fathers of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or simply CBT. I think most psychology historians would agree that the fathers of CBT are Dr. Albert Ellis and Dr. Aaron Beck. Dr. Ellis created his theories of Rational Emotional Behavior Therapy (REBT) in the 1950’s and Dr. Beck created his ideas of Cognitive Therapy (CT) in the 1960’s. The driver of their research was when they noticed conventional Freudian treatments were not helping patients. That these treatments were actually making depressed patients more depressed!
Thank goodness for these two men. Who knows where we would be as a society without their work. Dr. Ellis and Dr. Beck observed, created and tested their theories around the idea that negative and illogical thoughts may lead to negative consequences like anxiety and/or depression.
Fast forward to the 1980’s and Dr. David Burns, author of “Feeling Good” elegantly describes how cognitive therapy follows a progression of: your thoughts manifest your emotions and your emotions manifest your behaviors.
As Dr. Burn’s walks the reader through one of the best books (in my opinion) on cognitive therapy, he explains the relationship between the “real world” and the world that you or I “perceive.” That it is not the actual event(s) but your perception(s) that change your mood. Let’s create an example to make sure you understand cognitive distortions:
Close your eyes and imagine that you are about to give a presentation in front of your companies executives. Everyone who is somebody will be at this presentation and you really want a promotion. As you walk up to the front of the room your heart starts pounding. You feel a wave of tension and nerves break over your body as you think, “Oh my, what if I forget what I am supposed to say. I have never been a good public speaker. I will blank out, start stuttering and make a fool of myself.”
NOW the cascade of cognitive distortions begin:
“I never do anything right!”
“Everyone at work will look down at me!”
“I don't even know why I accepted this opportunity, now everyone will think that I am stupid and I definitely won’t get promoted!”
In short, cognitive distortions are negative thoughts that are exaggerated, irrational or illogical and may lead to a spiraling of negative thinking or worse. And we often use cognitive distortions when experiencing negative or stressful events. After researching this topic many resources agree that cognitive distortions can be defined by the following “Big-Ten”:
Disqualifying the Positive
Jumping to Conclusions
Magnification and Minimization
Labeling and Mislabeling
Although the Big-Ten’s titles are pretty darn descriptive I will define and provide numerous examples of each cognitive distortion in our next blog post, Unhealthy Coping Strategies and Cognitive Distortions Explained.
So why do cognitive distortions exist? And why do we use them nearly every day, all day?! From what I have gathered, it seems that we use cognitive distortions to reaffirm our own story or narrative. Cognitive distortions help fill in the gaps of what is happening in the world (reality) and what you think is happening in the world (your perception). Depending on your own mental awareness and empathy you may have small or large gaps between the real world and your world. The greater the gap between these two worlds the more distortions you may use to stretch the world to your narrative.
Maybe we are just protecting our egos...
When I was in graduate school for Psychology one of my professors found a clever way to resolve all of our cognitives problems with just three words: needs, wants and desires. He explained how our needs (functional need), wants (physical need) and desires (emotional need) will be different than the person sitting next to us and how this difference in perspective creates the opportunity to see the world differently. And that all day, everyday we will project and protect our unique set of needs, wants and desires onto the world.
And finally, why are negative distortions as reflexive as when our Doctors hit your knee cap with a rubber hammer?
Dr. Ellis coined the ABC Model in 1957. The ABC model does a nice job explaining why our negative emotions seem primed and ready to go like a loaded gun. Dr. Ellis explains that an “Activating event” drives a “Belief” then a “Consequence.” For example:
Negative event (A) → Irrational belief (B) → Unhealthy negative emotion (C)
-Someone cuts you in a line (A) →
-you feel worthless (B)→
-you explode with rage and tell this person how rude they are (C)
I hope that by bringing unhealthy coping strategies and cognitive distortions to your attention you will be more capable to recognize the negative, reflexive way most people respond to stressors. Once you can identify “Hey I do this and it’s unhealthy and unhelpful” then and ONLY then can you resolve it!