“I am not my thoughts – my thoughts do not define me, nor do they always represent reality.”
The most valuable realization I have had in my recovery has been learning about cognitive distortions. These are biased perspectives that we use on ourselves and the world. They are “irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.”
These are powerful tactics that our brains use to generalize about our situations. Thinking this way is not always a bad thing, as it helps our brains to strategize and compartmentalize – this thinking actually evolved because it was helpful to us. However, these cognitive patterns often grow larger than us, wheeling out of control and taking us down the rabbit hole of anxiety and worry. There are all sorts of cognitive distortions out there, but in this post, we will be talking about a few of the most common: catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, and all-or-nothing thinking.
The type of thinking that I fall into most often is catastrophizing, which is defined as “a cognitive distortion that prompts people to jump to the worst possible conclusion, usually with very limited information or objective reason to despair.” When I feel like something has gone wrong, I have a very hard time keeping myself from going to the worst-case scenario. In fact, that’s a phrase I use a lot when I am upset: you’ll hear me saying, “This is my worst-case scenario,” or “Things could not get worse for me.” I may know in my heart that I’ve made a jump in logic, but I often find myself stuck in that loop of thinking, with all the worst possible outcomes floating around in my head. Catastrophizing is an example of magnification / minimization, a common type of cognitive distortion that involves exaggerating or minimizing the importance of an event.
For me, issues that could be classified as “not a big deal” are suddenly a very big deal. I start to experience those “what ifs” as if they are really happening in the moment. I participate in something called “anxiety stacking” when I catastrophize, which means I stack more and more problems on top of the existing one until I feel completely overwhelmed. When this happens, I shut down. I am no longer able to see a situation clearly, and I often feel like the world itself is falling apart all around me.
How to Cope with Catastrophizing:
Luckily, there are lots of activities, exercises, and strategies to unravel patterned thinking like catastrophizing. One of the best tactics is to start by identifying when you have them, and what your triggers are! Find out more about how to work through this cognitive distortion here.
1. Wise Mind:
One of the exercises I use is a technique I learned from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy workbook by Marsha M. Linehan. This practice involves seeing all sides of a situation, not just the difficult or overwhelming side. Instead of using my emotional mind or my logical mind, I ask my Wise Mind to intervene. The Wise Mind is a path between the logical and emotional. It encourages me to take a step back from the situation and look at it with new eyes.
Start this exercise by closing your eyes and taking three long, deep breaths. Focus on how your body feels as you breathe. When other thoughts arise, simply observe them and then move past them. After allowing yourself to be still for a moment, ask yourself a question or bring up in your mind the situation which is causing you stress. Continue to deep breathe as you ask your Wise Mind for guidance. Listen to your intuition for direction, instead of relying on your logical or emotional mind. Now you’re using Wise Mind!
Another technique that works well for catastrophizing is visualization. I’ve learned to close my eyes, take three deep breaths, and imagine the situation or scenario that causes me stress or anxiety. Then, I imagine all the positive outcomes first – all the ways that this scenario can uplift me, benefit me, and make me stronger.
We can’t reason effectively when all we can focus on is the negative. I’ve made it a practice to jump straight to the good things, rather than going straight for the negatives. Then, with my eyes still closed, I imagine myself listening to music, or practicing another coping strategy that works well for me – counting to 10, returning to my breath, and paying attention to the sensations in my body. I visualize myself experiencing stress, working through it, and then experiencing something positive. When I open my eyes, I feel calmer and more able to address a situation constructively, without catastrophizing.
This is one of those distortions that we have all bought into at least once or twice. Emotional reasoning is the “acceptance of one’s emotions as fact.” In other words, thinking that because you feel a certain way, that makes it true. One example of this might be feeling neglected in a friendship, and therefore thinking that friendship is ending. Another example might be feeling that your work is not up to snuff, and therefore expecting you will soon be fired because of it. How we feel about something is not necessarily related to the context, nor does it mean we know how that thing is going to shake out. Emotional reasoning can be applied to work contexts, interpersonal relationships, and big life changes – if you’ve ever felt like your emotions indicate the truth or reality of a situation, you might have experienced emotional reasoning.
I use emotional reasoning all the time to convince myself that I know what is going to happen. Since I feel a certain way, that must make it true – but there is a world of difference between our emotional response to an event and the truth of the event itself. Sometimes when we think we are trusting our gut, we are actually letting our thoughts and feelings about a situation color our understanding.
How to Cope with Emotional Reasoning:
The best ways that I have found to cope with emotional reasoning involve mindfulness – observing my thoughts and being nonjudgmental about whatever arises.
1. Observe Your Thoughts:
Creating a space for you to take a step back from your thoughts, acknowledge them without judgment, and then let them drift away will allow you to observe your thinking rather than engage with it. When you start having patterned thoughts that are based in your emotions, try to simply label them with the phrase, “thinking.”
Close your eyes and imagine these thoughts as clouds, each one holding a different thought or feeling, and watch as they slowly float across the sky and out of view. The goal of this exercise is to be able to observe rather than participate: you are not required to follow your thoughts down the rabbit hole, and in fact you can simply acknowledge them and let them pass. Using labeling to sort through your patterned thoughts helps to separate you from those thoughts. You can use the labels “thinking,” “feeling,” “worrying,” or any other label that feels helpful to you.
2. Use a Gentle Curiosity:
Instead of committing to your thoughts and feelings as if they are reality, try using a “gentle curiosity” to ask yourself why you might be thinking or feeling that way. Don’t be judgmental or harsh when you question yourself: rather, be curious and gentle with your approach. I use this phrase to remind myself to be kind, loving, and understanding of my thought patterns.
Sometimes it is most helpful to gently uncover the reasons behind our thoughts and emotions, rather than letting them fill us up until we overflow. Ask yourself: “Are these thoughts helpful? What am I feeling in my body when I think this way? What are the underlying reasons behind these thoughts?” Remember to be gentle with yourself: sometimes we don’t know the answers to these questions, but asking them can help us find some distance between our emotions and our reality.
Sometimes we tell ourselves: “I will never be good enough,” or “I always ruin things in my life.” This is a common and widespread example of “all-or-nothing” thinking, which is a cognitive distortion. All-or-nothing thinking relies on ignoring the nuance of a situation. Suddenly, every issue is “all or nothing” – if you can’t overcome your mental condition, you’re a failure. If you haven’t achieved your goals yet, then you’re a loser. None of this is true to reality.
I practice all-or-nothing thinking a lot when things go wrong, or when I feel like they’ve gone wrong: I tell myself that “if I’m not first, then I’m last.” I started using all-or-nothing thinking to motivate myself to perform better in school, in professional settings, and interpersonal situations. I thought that by categorizing all the nuances and shades of gray into good and bad, I could control my circumstances more easily. But life is not that simple, though sometimes we wish it were.
How to Cope with All-or-Nothing Thinking:
The first step to coping with this cognitive distortion is recognizing when it happens, and how: spend some time trying to identify what your triggers are, and make a list of them in an easily accessible place.
1. Change Your Language:
Rather than saying “I can’t,” try saying “I feel like I can’t.” Introduce language that clarifies your thoughts. By using “feel,” we can put distance between our all-or-nothing thinking and our behaviors. Language determines so much of our perception – if we tell ourselves we can’t, then it feels and becomes true. Try instead to buffer your thoughts with new language: for example, when you want to say “I will never get this done,” say “I feel like I might never get this done.” This allows you to change your perception. Now, we are talking about how you think and feel, rather than making judgements on your ability.
2. Find the Middle Ground:
Balance your all-or-nothing thinking by listing the things you admire about yourself. It is important to remember that neutrality is just as important as positivism and negativism. When we commit to all-or-nothing thinking, we are discounting the world of in-betweens: many things in our lives are neither good nor bad, neither wrong nor right. There is always a middle road. Find balance by acknowledging your strengths and your weaknesses, knowing that every missed goal is a lesson, rather than an indication that you are not capable.
Our perceptions make our world real – they are how we understand ourselves and others. Cognitive distortions change our perceptions and make us more vulnerable to harmful and negative thought patterns. When we allow cognitive distortions to control us, we lose our ability to judge things objectively. Our thoughts and feelings tell us to see the world a certain way, but we don’t have to listen to them. Introducing mindfulness, thought observation techniques, language changes, and non-judgmental reasoning can all help to minimize the effects of cognitive distortions.
The most important thing to know when dealing with cognitive distortions is that you are not alone – these thought cycles have been studied and proven multiple times over the last century, and many people experience them on a day-to-day basis. For me, learning about these distortions and the patterns that come with them helped me change my perception of the world and find healthier ways to talk to myself about my surroundings.
Never forget that there is a middle path that we can take: we are not defined by our thoughts and emotions. Instead, they are reflections of our experiences and fears. We can introduce a new and balanced perspective that allows us to move forward by building ourselves up, rather than tearing ourselves down.