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  • Writer's pictureJaveria Fatima Zaidi

The Secret Saboteurs of Mental Health: Cognitive Distortions

Updated: Apr 2

In today’s age of knowledge, psychological jargon has seeped into everyday language, to the point that some terms are losing their meaning… or getting diluted at the very least! While I could have a whole conversation around that, I will try not to digress from my topic at hand: cognitive distortions.


You may have heard of this term on social media; or even if you haven’t heard of ‘cognitive distortions’, you will know exactly what I’m talking about as we dive deeper into this topic.





What are ‘cognitive distortions’?


Cognitive, in essence, means to do with intellect (so brain related activities such as thinking, remembering, etc). Therefore cognitive distortion could be said to mean ‘faulty thinking’.


I am oversimplifying here, of course, to make a point, but you understand.


ChatGPT tells me:

‘A cognitive distortion is a pattern of thinking that deviates from normative or rational judgement; it's a way our mind convinces us of something that isn’t true or distorts reality in some way. These distortions are biased perspectives we take on ourselves and the world, that can lead to negative thinking, emotions, and behaviours.’


For example, I once knew someone who was convinced that she was ALWAYS getting taken advantage of, through NO FAULT of her own… ever.


That was a cognitive distortion.


There were relationship patterns she engaged in, that repeatedly led her to the same results, but she had a blind spot that prevented her from seeing where she was going wrong, and then became stuck in this victim mindset that ‘others’ were ALWAYS going to harm her, and it would NEVER be her fault. She was so blinded by this warped view of reality that she couldn’t see how she contributed to her own misery.


Another great explanation about cognitive distortions:

‘Cognitive distortions are internal mental filters or biases that increase our misery, fuel our anxiety, and make us feel bad about ourselves. Our brains are continually processing lots of information. To deal with this, our brains seek shortcuts to cut down our mental burden. Sometimes these shortcuts are helpful, yet in other circumstances — such as with these unhelpful cognitive filters — they can cause more harm than good.’ ¹


Where do cognitive distortions come from?


Research suggests that cognitive distortions arise during times of stress; they’re your brain’s way of keeping you safe and helping you cope. The more stress you experience, the more cognitive distortions you employ; the more cognitive distortions you employ, the more likely you are to develop mental illness (such as depression, anxiety, etc). ²


While cognitive distortions may initially arise as a coping mechanism during stress, their prolonged use can negatively impact mental health, creating a cycle that can be challenging to break without intervention.


Let's consider the case of Maria, a highly sensitive woman, navigating a particularly stressful period of her life.


Maria recently received a promotion at work, a recognition she had long awaited. However, the increased workload and the pressure to perform began to weigh heavily on her.


Being highly sensitive, Maria processed things deeply, and the constant barrage of emails, meetings, and deadlines quickly became overwhelming. In response, her mind started employing cognitive distortions as a way to cope.


She found herself frequently thinking in terms of "all-or-nothing" - believing that any minor mistake on her part would result in catastrophic failure. "If I can't handle this project flawlessly," she thought, "then I'm a complete failure."


This pattern of thinking led to increased anxiety and self-doubt, significantly affecting her performance and well-being. Maria's fear of failure became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as her worry and stress hindered her ability to focus and work effectively. She began to withdraw from her colleagues, fearing judgment, and her personal relationships started to suffer due to her irritability and constant state of stress.


In this scenario, an Expressive Writing Coach could offer Maria some helpful guidance out of the vicious cycle. Through expressive writing, Maria would be guided to externalise her thoughts and feelings, putting them down on paper. This act alone could be incredibly therapeutic, as it would allow her some breathing space from her intense emotions.


An Expressive Writing Coach would encourage Maria to explore her "all-or-nothing" thoughts, challenging them gently, and helping her to recognise the shades of grey between the extremes. By writing about her experiences and fears, Maria could begin to see how her cognitive distortions were not reflections of reality… but instead, skewed perceptions shaped by stress.


The coach would also guide Maria through writing exercises, helping her cultivate self-compassion and resilience. For example, she might be encouraged to write a letter to herself from the perspective of a compassionate friend, highlighting her strengths, acknowledging her efforts, and offering support. These writing practices could help Maria shift her internal story from one of criticism and fear, to one of kindness and encouragement.


The process of expressive writing, facilitated by a coach, can lead to new insights and emotional release. This helps to break the cycle of cognitive distortions by providing new, healthier ways to cope with stress.


As Maria continued to engage with expressive writing, she would likely find her anxiety lessening, her self-esteem improving, and her ability to navigate work stress with greater ease and confidence growing.

 

Examples of Common Cognitive Distortions


1.      All-or-nothing thinking, also called black-and-white thinking

 

Thinking in extremes, with no middle ground. For example, ‘I’ve eaten more chocolate than I meant to. There’s no point trying to eat healthy today!’

 

2.      Overgeneralisation

Thinking that something that happens once, will always (or never) happen. For example, ‘My partner hurt my feelings. They ALWAYS do this.’

 

3.       Minimising / Magnifying (Catastrophizing)

 

Viewing problems as bigger than they are, and good qualities as less important than they are. For example, brushing compliments off as you think the other person is probably just being polite. (minimising)

 

OR

 

Thinking a person will never speak to you again because of one awkward interaction (catastrophising).

 

4.       ‘Should’ statements

 

Essentially commanding yourself/others to live up to (usually unrealistic) expectations, then feeling guilty/angry/resentful when that doesn’t happen.

For example, ‘I should have a thicker skin. It’s my own fault for feeling hurt at their jokes!’

 

5.       Labelling

 

Giving (usually negative) labels to yourself or others, based on a singular event and/or without much evidence/thought. For example, ‘My coworkers forgot my birthday… I’m such a loser!’

 

6.       Jumping to conclusions (mind-reading and fortune-telling)

 

1)      Mind reading:-

Assuming negative perceptions of yourself from others, without factual support. For example, ‘My partner is so quiet today… they must be mad at me.’

 

2)      Fortune telling:-

Making negative predictions about the future, once again without real-life evidence. For example, ‘I’ll never master this skill!’ (you may be a beginner struggling with something new)

 

7.       Discounting The Positive

 

Dismissing positive aspects, while focusing only on the negative. For example, your coach congratulates you on making progress with controlling your temper. You say, ‘Its hardly progress… I still get angry half the time. Its not progress until I’m perfect.’ 

 

8.       Blame and Personalisation

 

Unfairly and inaccurately blaming either others, or yourself, entirely. For example, ‘The fight broke out because of THEIR kids. My angels would never behave like that.’

 

OR

 

‘I’m such a bad mother that my children got into a fight! I should have been more vigilant!’

 

9.       Emotional Reasoning

 

Not recognising the difference between feelings and reality. For example, ‘I’m so stupid!’ (just because you feel stupid in one situation does not mean you are objectively stupid).

 

10.   Mental Filter

 

Letting one negative aspect negate all positives of a situation. For example, ‘I had a bad day at work. So now the entire day is ruined. Nothing good that happens today matters anymore.’

 

Cognitive distortions can shape our perception of reality in a way that often reinforces negative thoughts or feelings. They can contribute to or exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Recognizing and challenging these distorted thoughts can lead to healthier patterns of thinking and a more positive outlook on life.

 

Identifying Cognitive Distortions


It’s one thing to know about cognitive distortions in general, but to recognise the beast within, is the real ballgame. We know that these patterns of thought are like mental optical illusions, so it may not always be clear to see through our blind spots.


Below are some prompts you can use to reflect on yourself and identify whether you engage in these misleading thought patterns. Ideally, grab a pen and paper, and jot down your responses – the more detailed, the more insightful and better for you.


- Do I often view situations in "all or nothing" terms?

- Am I quick to generalise one bad experience as a never-ending pattern of defeat?

- Do I find myself expecting disaster to strike, no matter the evidence to the contrary?

- When things go wrong, do I automatically blame myself or others without considering external factors?

- Today, I felt overwhelmed because… (Look for patterns of catastrophizing or magnifying problems.)

- A situation I saw in black and white was...  (Identify instances of black-and-white thinking.)

- I realized I might be overgeneralizing when...  (Reflect on moments you applied a broad rule based on a single event.)

- I blamed myself for...  (Consider if personalization is at play.)


Signs to Watch For in Thought Patterns


-   Persistent Negative Outlook:   Constantly expecting the worst outcomes may signal catastrophizing.

-   Self-Criticism:   Harsh, unforgiving self-assessment often points to personalization or labelling.

-   Rigid Thinking:   Viewing situations or behaviours in absolute terms, such as "good" or "bad," can indicate black-and-white thinking.

 

Overcoming Cognitive Distortions


Let’s say you read this article, understand what it’s all about, and identify a bunch of distortions in your way of thinking. Now what?

Below are some actionable steps for you to practice over a period of time, to help you reflect and bring about a positive change.


1.       Expressive Writing About Emotional Experiences

 

Easier said than done, but try to hold off making decisions/accusations until after this step. When you go through something upsetting or emotional, try to step back and write about it. Write without worrying about the quality of your handwriting, your spelling, or grammar. Write without worrying about ‘writing well’.

 

Write down, in detail, the entire incident – what happened, what you hoped would happen, your thoughts during it, your feelings around it. Write for as long as you can.

 (And if it was something deeply upsetting due to which you’re unable to write: scribble! Doodle! Colour! Make marks! Let your feelings out onto the page in whichever way feels good!)The next day, or when you feel calmer, look back at your process and view it from a balanced perspective. Compare what really happened with how you perceived things in the moment. And take it from there.

 

 

2.       Letter Writing

 

This is one of my favourite things to do with clients. If you’re feeling wronged by someone, try writing a letter from their perspective.

Or if feeling particularly angry at yourself, write a letter from a future, more accomplished version of yourself, to your current self. Include words of encouragement, and bring attention to your achievements, however big or small.

 

3.       Mindful Reflective Writing

 

Write about how you feel, in the moment. No judgement, just observations. If you find it hard to dive into the emotions, you could begin with the physical sensations. Describe what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Then go deeper and write about the thoughts in your head, the feelings in your heart. Write about your worries and fears and hopes and dreams. Write about everything that comes up.

 

4.       CBT-type Writing

 

This is more of a structured approach, and here’s how it works. Identify a thought that’s really bothering you… maybe something like. ‘No one EVER helps me!’

Make 2 columns, one for, and one against this. Write down whatever factual evidence you can think of, in each column. Once you’ve exhausted all options for both columns, take a break, re-read everything and write a balanced view, taking into account the nuances and complexities of the situation.

 

5.       Professional Guidance

 

I cannot state this enough. Honestly. Going to therapy, getting personal coaching, and even now working with a supervisor are the best things I could have done for myself.

If you persistently struggle with overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, harsh self-criticism, or paralysing fear of failure due to cognitive distortions, I can help.

 

While the above strategies are powerful, working with a professional coach, especially one familiar with the needs of highly sensitive individuals, can provide tailored guidance. As an Expressive Writing Coach, I can offer personalised strategies and support in integrating writing into your life effectively.

 

Case Study


If all the information in this article seems daunting, let me share an example of a client, Zoey.*


When Zoey first started working with me, she described how she had several problematic people in her life. The following was her narrative:-


Her partner was not cooperative, her children deliberately pushed her buttons, and her in-laws were annoying. Not only this, but she was also the unofficial family therapist/mediator for her parents and siblings in their various disagreements. All of this was taking a huge toll on her mental health. She was so entrenched in the family drama, that she was unable to start a business idea she’d had for a long time. She couldn’t dedicate hours to it, as she wanted, so she figured it was a waste of time to spend any amount of time on it, at all. Plus, she reasoned, it not like she would ever be able to accomplish anything in that aspect; her family would never give her the breathing space to do it. All these thoughts built up a world of resentment within her, and she struggled with her temper. She knew she shouldn’t start shouting at the drop of a hat, but that’s just who she was: an angry mum, and she hated it. She went through periods of self-blame, too. Sometimes she could see why her children behaved the way they did; after all, she was the mother and that’s who they emulated. And sometimes she blamed her partner entirely, for being unavailable and unhelpful whenever he was around.


I’m going to pause here.


Were you able to pinpoint the various cognitive distortions in Zoey’s narrative?


Here are a few:

1)      Black and White Thinking (since she couldn’t dedicate hours to her business idea, she didn’t bother with taking any steps at all.)

2)      Overgeneralisation (partner was NEVER helpful in her eyes – whereas upon further discussion we saw that this wasn’t true.)

3)      Should Statements (she felt she shouldn’t be so easily angered, and was extremely hard on herself. Each time she did react in a way she didn’t want to, she got angrier at herself, which in turn spilled over to her loved ones.)

4)      Jumping to Conclusions (the belief that her family would never give her the space to grow, career-wise… whereas it was a matter of setting some gentle boundaries.)

5)      Emotional Reasoning (since she got angry at times, she thought was just an ‘angry person’, thereby having a warped view of her personality.)


Over the course of several months, we were able to pick apart her skewed perceptions, and as a result:


-          Her anxiety reduced

-          She felt happier and more confident

-          Her relationship with her partner improved

-          She was able to communicate her needs and wants to her family

-          She was unburdened from her needless guilt

-          She was able to set boundaries in respectful, culture-appropriate ways.

 

Conclusion


We all have cognitive distortions; every last one of us. As long as we can catch our thoughts and bring ourselves back to a place of balance, all is well. It’s only when we begin to believe most of these tricky buggers, do we end up becoming unhappy, restless and confused as to where we went wrong.


If you find yourself in that position, drop me an email at support@penandheal.com

 

*Name and other details changed to protect the client’s privacy. Any resemblance to a real person is pure coincidence.

 

 

References:-




 

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