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Challenging Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions come in many forms; however, they consistently result in excessive worry. Basically, cognitive distortions are exaggerated and irrational thoughts that lead to worry and negatively impact our functioning and quality of life. So what do we do to rid ourselves of these destructive thoughts? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches cognitive challenging, or ways to challenge these cognitive distortions and create a more productive life. Here are a few ways to “challenge” some of the most common cognitive distortions.

  1. Overgeneralization: or taking a single or small negative experience or feeling and expecting it to always be true. This type of thinking can be challenged by rationally thinking about said negative thought or feeling. Everyone experiences negative events. It does not mean that their entire life or experience is negative. Normalizing these events can reduce the tendency to generalize. Reminding yourself that you can change the outcome of future events and treating the current negative event as a learning experience creates positive growth rather than creating the environment for continued negative events.
  2. Catastrophizing: or when an individual expects the worst case scenario in almost all or all scenarios. This tends to be associated with pessimism but can take on an extreme form causing people to avoid situations or people. Challenging this distortion can be a little difficult as often times the end result is based in reality. When there is a lot of traffic we tend to work ourselves up by thinking we will never get to work. While that is not exactly true, it is based in truth. While its not true you will never get to work, you most likely will be late. Rationalizing these thoughts reduces the amount of anxiety you will feel with them. Late and never are two very different words so reminding yourself of the reality of the situation and the true outcome, not the exaggerated one will reduce the anxiety and train yourself to react proportionately.
  3. Diminishing the Positives: or finding reasons that the positive parts of our life don’t matter. This can include making excuses for when good things happen so that we can continue to expect them not to happen. Taking pride in accomplishments and recognizing our strengths is the best way to challenge this distortion. Reminding ourselves of how we earned something and giving ourselves the credit will combat the thoughts that we do not deserve the positive or praise.
  4. Personalization: or assuming the responsibility for things that are out of your control. Generally these assumptions are illogical. For example, when someone makes a mistake or has an accident, we take responsibility even though we were not involved. If these thoughts are illogical then the way to challenge them is with logic. There is no way for you to cause an accident when you are not present. You also cannot be responsible for what everyone does at all times. Sometimes things happen by chance and people are individuals and responsible for themselves. In other words, evaluate the situation realistically and find the truth to reduce putting the blame on yourself.
  5. Jumping to Conclusions: or assuming and making interpretations without evidence. This one is straight forward to challenge. If the problem is drawing a conclusion without the evidence, the solution is to use the evidence and make a rational conclusion. It is easy to think negatively when you are using emotion rather than thought to fill in the missing information.
  6. Filtering: or filtering out all of the positives and placing emphasis on the negatives. In these situations you tend to focus on the one negative thing that happened rather than acknowledge and enjoy the positives. For example, if you do one thing that you are embarrassed by (tripping for example) then the entire night with friends was ruined, even though you had a fun time. Challenging this is easy, with practice. Listing out the positives to show first that they exist and then second that they may even out number the negatives will help remind you of them and retrain your brain to recognize them.
  7. All or Nothing Thinking: or never, always, and every thoughts. This is basically thinking and believing that something either is or isn’t and ignoring the gray. Eliminating those words from your vocabulary helps challenge these distorted thoughts and find the middle ground. Also, reminding yourself of times that these all or nothing thoughts were not true will help reduce the urge and tendency to use these words and thoughts.
  8. Labeling: or using negative language to label and identify yourself. Often times this means defining yourself by small negative traits or mistakes. It ignores the rest of you and leads to name calling or negative self-talk. Challenging these is difficult because often times these negative labels convince us that the positives do not exist. Train yourself to identify a positive every time you identify a negative.

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