Distorted Thinking

Dysfunctional or distorted thinking is fundamental to our brain’s activity and distorted thinking makes up the nuts and bolts of cognitive therapies. Our brains are wired to discern patterns, make up for missing information and draw conclusions based on limited information. While these capabilities keep us alive and safe, the very same processes can also get us into trouble.

Distorted thinking lies at the foundation of much suffering as well as many mild and more severe psychological (and possibly some physical disorders). Think of anxiety for example: The agoraphobic woman is afraid to leave her house due to the belief that being outside the house is unsafe and thinks that something terrible will happen to her if she leaves home. The socially phobic teenager is terrified of public speaking due to distorted thoughts about the negative judgements his peers are likely to make about him. These are examples that have led to entrenched patterns of avoidant behaviour. However, self-talk and distortions are frequently present on an everyday level . They may take the form of, “what if . . .? “I should . . .”, “I’ll never be able to . . .”, I’m inferior”, and “I’m incompetent”. They may be so automatic and subtle that they are not immediately obvious.

Distorted thinking typically follows recognised patterns. For example, Justification: “ I failed the test so I really need to eat something yummy to help me feel better”; Exaggerated thinking: “ I am absolutely no good at speaking in public – I shouldn’t even try”; Negative fortune telling (and under-estimating your ability to cope), “Even if I do well today, I’ll never keep it up for long”; and Catastrophising: “I’ve had a nagging headache for two days – maybe I have a brain tumour”. You may be able identify some of these in your own thinking.

Mostly, we are barely aware of our thoughts, although a little training can help to bring them into conscious awareness. But even when we are able to notice the irrationality or unreality of our thoughts and adjust our actions accordingly, throw in a little stress, and our capacity to ‘reality check’ may fly out the window. Think of a time when you felt anxious or overwhelmed. What conclusions or errors contributed to the stress increase? What may have been more helpful or more accurate?

A colleague, Dr Alice Boyes, asked a group of experts to identify a recent trap they fell into where they observed themselves caught in a cognitive distortion, (see www.aliceboyes.com). I asked a group of local psychology experts the same question. Just because they are experts does not mean they don’t fall into the same traps as everyone else. However, they may be more able to spot them.
One example was the colleague trying to assist with her mother’s hospital admission. Upon arrival, the hospital appeared to have no information regarding her mother. My colleague managed the situation and it was resolved. She then found herself thinking, “Now I will need to be present every time my mother is admitted to hospital, otherwise it will not go well”. This is an example of Negative fortune-telling and generalising from one example to all future similar situations.
Another colleague, when tickling her son, discovered a lump under his arm. She noticed that her thoughts immediately took her to his funeral (having linked the lump with cancer and death). This is an example of Catastrophising, jumping from limited information to a catastrophic outcome. Having recognised the cognitive error, she was able to relax, think more rationally, then follow logical steps to identify and resolve the problem.
Another example involved a colleague calling out a greeting in the street to someone she knew. When the other person failed to respond, my colleague caught herself immediately thinking, “What have I done wrong? I must have done something to offend her!”, and almost immediately recognised the Catastrophising error. Once recognised, the distortion was able to be replaced with thoughts such as, “She may have been deep in thought or pre-occupied, maybe she didn’t see me, or wasn’t aware it was me, or maybe she needs glasses”.

Mental health professionals often put pressure on themselves and may attribute lack of client progress to their own failings or lack of skill. Any indication that their practice isn’t perfect leads to Catastrophising, with thoughts of being a failure as a practitioner and not measuring up to various standards.

The point is that we are all vulnerable to distortions in thinking – especially when we are stressed or anxious, self-critical, or upset. Noticing the distortions at these times is a skill we can develop. When you notice distortions, stop and reflect on what you are saying to yourself. Slow down, breathe more slowly, or do something to disrupt the flow of thoughts, and you may find that, with practice, you can notice these patterns sooner, recognise their irrationality and weaken their power to cause distress.


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