Sometimes, our brains process an event so quickly that we don't even realize what's going on - within seconds, we can have an experience, a thought, a feeling and a reaction, without even realizing what led to the reaction. When there are particularly stressful or negative events, we can experience cognitive distortions, which is when our mind convinces us of something that isn't true. The feelings and reactions that come from these distortions can impact our mood, or worse -depending on how we react to them- damage our relationships with ourselves and others.
By training ourselves to slow down and unpack the event, thoughts, feelings and general cognitions around it, we can restructure our minds and cognitions to reduce our negative framing.
There are a number of different cognitive distortions, which have their own techniques for addressing them. This section will help you identify them and provide questions and worksheets for unpacking them.
The recommendation is that you carry a journal or notebook with you daily, and when you notice these thoughts - if you're able to - write them out and unpack them on the spot. You can also do this in the evening. It will feel difficult and uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. The point is to eventually get in the habit of noticing how the brain jumps from Event -> Thought -> Feeling -> Reaction, and disrupting that process to influence our interpretation and mood.
Dichotomous Reasoning or All or Nothing
Situations and people are judged in terms of either / or. Everything has to fit in only one of two boxes.
Examples: Feeling like you're either amazing or a complete failure; Thinking a person who does something wrong is a "bad person."
Arbitrary Inference or Jumping to Conclusions
You judge a situation on the basis of random bits of evidence. This includes mind-reading (knowing what other people are thinking) and fortune-telling (being able to predict the future).
Example: "She crossed the street as soon as she saw me so that she could avoid me."
Magnification and Minimisation or the Binocular Trick
Negative bits loom large and positive bits seem lost in the distance. Catastrophising is when you exaggerate the significance of the negative aspects, either give them more importance than is realistic or predict negative outcomes that are extreme.
Example: "I said something wrong at dinner and now everyone is going to hate me."
There are two ways of understanding this. There is a tendency to take the blame for things that you cannot be responsible for, and / or the tendency to believe that everything is directed at you.
Example: "I told everyone to try this restaurant and they hated it - I ruined their night and it's all my fault."
Discounting the Positive or Reverse Alchemy
Something positive is turned into a negative.
Example: "She wouldn't love me if she knew how I really was." "He only said that so that he could get something from me."
A single example or situation is seen as the norm. Characterised by the use of absolutes such as always, never, nobody, everybody.
Example: "Everyone hates me." "They never listen." "I always mess up everything."
Global Judgements or Labeling
You label or judge a specific situation or person in an extreme way.
Example: "They're completely incompetent. They never do anything right."
We accept without questioning all the musts, shoulds and haves that underlie daily life.
Example: "I have to stay in control no matter what."
When we mistake our feelings for facts.
Example: "I feel anxious - something terrible is going to happen."
A person or situation is judged on the basis of a small negative detail without reference to the whole; zoning in one the small, minute thing that's "wrong" while disregarding everything that's right.
Example: "What he did was really nice but he said this one comment that I didn't like." "My XYZ was almost perfect - except for that one thing."
There are some guiding questions to help start the process of restructuring, once you identify an event.
Keeping thought records is an excellent way to help you become aware of any cognitive distortions that went previously unnoticed or unquestioned, which is the necessary first step to restructuring them (Boyes, 2013). There are several different ways to structure a thought record, but the main idea is to note what recurrent thoughts are coming to mind and the situations in which they come up. A popular thought record instructs you to record the situation, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and alternate thought.
Example of a thought record of someone who struggle with being alone and has depressive symptoms:
Alternatively, if you are struggling with procrastination, you might fill out the thought record as follows:
Supporting Resources and Adaptations
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Manuals - insert names later
The CBT Toolbox: A Workbook for Clients and Clinicians by Jeff Riggenbach (Amazon)
Client’s Guidebook: “Activities and Your Mood” by Community Partners in Care (PDF here)
The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety: A Step-by-Step Program by William J. Knaus and Jon Carlson (Amazon)
The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression: A Step-by-Step Program by William J. Knaus and Albert Ellis (Amazon)
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Skills Workbook by Barry Gregory (Amazon)
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