How to Overcome Cognitive Distortions

February 3, 2020

Cognitive distortions are the hidden assumptions that make us feel bad about things that happen to us. Typically, we don’t feel bad about events themselves but rather we feel bad because of our beliefs about events. This is the core insight of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, currently considered the “gold standard” of psychotherapy based on decades of research backing its effectiveness. 

CBT is used to treat a variety of conditions, including substance use disorders and common co-occurring mental health issues like anxiety disorders and depression. CBT is also the basis of other psychotherapeutic methods, such as dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, which has been shown to be effective for very stubborn conditions such as borderline personality disorder, suicidal depression, eating disorders, and addiction.

In a previous post, we looked at cognitive distortions in some detail. Most of these were named and popularized by psychologist David Burns, based on the work of CBT founder Aaron Beck. In this post, we’ll look at how to actually deal with these cognitive distortions so they don’t cause us so much emotional pain.

Common Cognitive Distortions

Let’s start by reviewing, in brief, some common cognitive distortions. For more detail, see the earlier post, “Is Your Mind Making You Miserable? Watch Out for These Cognitive Distortions.”

Overgeneralization: This is when you draw overly broad conclusions based on one piece of evidence. For example, “I did poorly on a test so I must be stupid.”

Black-or-white thinking: Also called “polarization” or “all-or-nothing thinking,” this is when you let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Personalization: This is when you assume that you’re directly responsible for everything that happens. For example, a friend is in a bad mood, so you assume you did something wrong.

Mind reading: Mind reading is when you are certain you know what other people are thinking–usually that it’s something bad about you.

Fair universe fallacy: This is the belief that life should be fair, that everyone should be punished or rewarded for their behavior.

Jumping to conclusions: Similar to mind reading, this is when you draw unfounded conclusions about what is happening or what will happen, usually that it will be bad.

Filtering: Focus on negative evidence and ignore positive evidence.

Discounting the positive: When someone compliments you or otherwise points out something you did well but you always find reasons why it doesn’t “count.”

Catastrophizing: This is when you assume some possible outcome would be unbearably awful.

Emotional reasoning: The assumption that something is true because it feels true, even if there’s no real evidence for it.

Change fallacy: The belief that you can change or “fix” other people.

Talk to a therapist.

While you can spot some of your own cognitive distortions, and we would all do well to try, regardless of whether or not we have substance use or mental health issues, many of our most destructive assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice them. Talking to a skilled therapist is the best way to uncover the irrational assumptions that are making us miserable. 

Talking to a therapist can also help you calibrate your expectations. Say, for example, that you had an argument with your partner and now you’re depressed because you think it means you are going to break up. That might be an example of jumping to conclusions or catastrophizing. However, depending on the argument, it might also be a reasonable conclusion. Having the perspective of an objective expert can help you get a better sense of when your assumptions are irrational.

The ABC Method

The ABC method of identifying and challenging distorted thinking was created by psychologist Albert Ellis, founder of rational-emotive behavioral therapy, or REBT. It is the basis for challenging irrational thinking in CBT. ABC stands for activating event, belief, and consequence. The activating event is whatever happened that led to your feeling bad. The belief is your beliefs or assumptions about what the event means and the consequence is actually feeling bad. In practice, the ABC method might better be called the CAB method because your beliefs about a situation are often the last part you are able to identify.  

The ABC method is a common homework assignment in CBT. The idea is that you keep track of activating events, beliefs, and consequences as they occur in daily life so you can analyze them more deeply. Typically, you start with C–the consequence–because that is the problem you’re trying to fix. So that consequence might be anger, sadness, anxiety, or a drug or alcohol craving. Start by writing down, in detail, the consequence whenever you notice it. Then, move on to A–the activating event. Sometimes you won’t know exactly what that was. Just write down what was going on around that time. What were you thinking about? Who were you talking to? Where were you? A cursory review of the situation will probably reveal the likely activating event.

Next comes the challenging part: identifying the irrational belief. It’s often best just to describe what you were thinking about without trying to identify the cognitive distortion. Ask yourself why someone’s offhand remark, for example, made you feel bad. Typically, we feel anger as a result of being threatened, we feel sadness as a result of experiencing loss, we feel anxiety as a result of thinking about the future, and we feel guilt about wronging someone else. Use those clues to uncover your specific thoughts.

D and E

After ABC come D and E. D stands for disputing irrational beliefs and E stands for effective replacements. At this point, it is helpful to have some idea of what cognitive distortion the belief falls into. Keep in mind, it might be several, such as mind-reading, jumping to conclusions, and personalization. Typically, the best way to dispute irrational thoughts is to look for contradictory evidence. If your thoughts are making you miserable, you’re likely focusing on negative evidence, so you don’t need any help there. Instead, focus on positive evidence. Going back to the example above, if you feel stupid because you did poorly on a test, look for contradictory evidence, such as tests or classes you’ve done well in, or even better, think of another time you did poorly on a test and did well on the next one. Also, give your negative evidence the same scrutiny as your positive evidence. This is especially important for emotional reasoning, mind reading, and jumping to conclusions, for which no real evidence often exists. 

Finally, replace your old faulty assumption with a new, more accurate one. For example, if you think it would be a catastrophe if your partner broke up with you, replace it with a more realistic thought like, “I would be sad if my partner broke up with me but I would eventually get over it and find someone else.” It may take a while for these new positive beliefs to feel true but it will happen with consistent effort. 

Recovery from addiction isn’t just abstinence from drugs and alcohol; it’s learning a set of skills that can help you live a happier, more fulfilling life. It takes a lot of help and consistent effort to learn these skills but recovery is possible. At Steps Recovery Centers, we offer individualized treatment options based on time-tested 12-step principles. To learn more about our treatment programs, call us today at 385-236-0931 or explore our website. 

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