Avoid Cognitive Distortions (“Catastrophizing” & “Overgeneralizing”)

What are cognitive distortions?  Cognitive distortions can be considered slips in our thinking that we all make at times. They are a derivative of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  The main premise behind them is that your thoughts have an enormous impact on your emotions and the way you are feeling.  So, if you are feeling terrible, there is a big chance that you are thinking in an unhelpful way.  These unhelpful thinking styles cause us to jump to incorrect conclusions, make false assumptions, and much more. 

Ten main cognitive distortions cause us to feel bad about ourselves, others, and situations/circumstances.  So far, the cognitive distortions all or nothing,” “mental filtering,”disqualifying the positive,” “jumping to conclusions”, “emotional reasoning”, and “overly rigid rule-keeping” have been addressedDuring this blog post, the cognitive distortions “catastrophizing”  and “overgeneralizing” will be presented, along with a way to overcome and avoid using these unhealthy thinking styles.

Catastrophizing refers to times when we take relatively minor negative circumstances and blow them completely out of proportion.  We do this by imagining the worst and considering all of the disasters that this relatively minor event will cause.  For example, you call to invite a friend over for dinner this Saturday, but they decline your offer.  Before allowing him/her to explain their reasoning, you hang up and conclude that they no longer want to be your friend.  You then go on to imagine your friend telling all of your other friends how foolish you are.  Based on this, you decide that you will no longer have any friends.  How about another more salient example?  Upon hearing your elderly parent sneeze, you immediately assume that they have symptoms of the Caronavirus (CVOID-19).  You go on to imagine him/her wheezing on their death bed and conclude that they will be deceased before the end of the month. 

We can do several things to avoid and alleviate this type of unhealthy thinking style.  First, we can acknowledge it for what it is.  It is simply a thought.  When we begin thinking this way, we can begin to put things in perspective by considering the other possibilities that may be a result of why we are catastrophizing.  Are you sure that our friend no longer wants to be friends?  Could they have valid reasons for declining your offer?  Is it possible that your elderly parent might be sneezing for other reasons?  Could they have seasonal allergies? 

After putting things into perspective, we can consider the evidence that we have for and against the reason for our catastrophizing.  Do you have enough factual evidence that your friend wants to discontinue your relationship?  Have they given you a reason to believe this in the past?  What about the factual evidence regarding your elderly parent?  Do they have a dangerously high fever?  Are they exhibiting any other symptoms that give you evidence to believe your initial thought?

Of course, there is the possibility that your friend could want to end your relationship.  Or your elderly parent could have CVOID-19.  However, before reaching these conclusions, it is important to consider all of the evidence we have for and against them.  By doing this, we can avoid unneeded and unnecessary anxiety. In the worst-case scenario (our catastrophe comes true), we will be in a much better position to handle and overcome it. 

Overgeneralizing occurs when we make assumptions about the future based on an isolated instance in the past or present.  This type of unhealthy thinking style often leads to a strong sense of hopelessness.  For example, you have been cheated on in one of your past relationships.  Based on this, you conclude that ALL relationships will consist of being cheated on.  Or, you know one person who has sneezed and been diagnosed with CVOID-19.  Based on this, you conclude that everyone who sneezes will be diagnosed with CVOID-19.    

To overcome this unhealthy thinking style, we can incorporate several strategies.  First, we can identify our thinking patterns.  Begin to recognize when these overgeneralizations occur.  Become more mindful of these overgeneralizations by writing them down or starting a journal.  After recognizing and recording these negative thoughts, we can begin to recognize patterns related to them.  Now that we have a sense of our patterns related to these overgeneralizations, we can begin to challenge them.  Are they known to be true (for a fact)?  Would another person view these things in the same way? 

Finally, we can replace these negative thoughts with more accurate ones.  For example, my ex cheating on me is not a reflection of the success of my future relationships.  It is a reflection of their moral character more than anything.  And, because one person who sneezes has been diagnosed with CVOID-19 does not mean that everyone who sneezes will be diagnosed with it. In fact, 95% of the population sneezes or blows their nose around four times a day! Today you can avoid cognitive distortions (“catastrophizing” & “overgeneralizing”)!

(Photo by Yoav Aziz)

Avoid Cognitive Distortions (“All or Nothing” & “Mental Filtering”)

What are cognitive distortions?  Cognitive distortions can be considered slips in our thinking that we all make at times. They are a derivative of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  The main premise behind them is that your thoughts have an enormous impact on your emotions and the way you are feeling.  So, if you are feeling terrible, there is a big chance that you are thinking in an unhelpful way.  These unhelpful thinking styles cause us to jump to incorrect conclusions, make incorrect assumptions, and much more. 

Ten main cognitive distortions cause us to feel bad about ourselves, others, and situations/circumstances.  Throughout my next five blog posts, I will introduce and explain these cognitive distortions as well as provide you with a way to overcome and avoid them.  I will incorporate two into my blog posts a day for my next five blog posts

All or nothing (black and white) thinking is an extreme type of thinking that often leads to extreme emotions and behaviors.  When we utilize this unhealthy thinking style, we see things on the extreme ends of a spectrum.  For example, either you view yourself as perfect or as a failure.  There is no in-between!  Another example is either you are depressed, or you are on top of the world.  Again, there is no in-between. 

Unfortunately, it is very easy to fall into this type of thinking.  Here, I will use a situational example.  Imagine that you have decided that you are no longer going to consume alcohol or other drugs.  You are doing well for two weeks and end up giving in and drinking a beer.  All or nothing thinking would lead you to presume that this is it and that you should just go back to drinking alcohol and doing other drugs. 

To overcome this cognitive distortion, you can utilize a strategy known as “both-and reasoning.” By thinking this way, you are better able to reason with yourself mentally.  Specifically, you can allow yourself to realize that two seemingly opposite things can exist together.  You can both succeed in your goal to ultimately remain sober and have a slip-up or two.  (I am not saying that drinking alcohol or doing other drugs is a good idea when you are seeking sobriety, but if you do have a slip-up, it is not the end.  You can recover!)

Mental filtering occurs when we focus solely on the negative aspects of situations without considering the positive aspects.  When this happens, our current circumstances can be completely fulfilled with a single negative detail.  For example, you believe you are a failure, so your natural tendency is to focus on the mistakes you have made and not consider your success or accomplishments.  Building on our previous cognitive distortion, another example would be focusing only on the fact that you drank that beer.  Not considering that you were able to remain sober for two weeks. 

To overcome this cognitive distortion, you should take time to really collect FACTUAL evidence that contradicts what you are feeling down about.  When doing this, make sure that you are not looking at the situation using that same negative lens that resulted in you feeling this way.  Look at the evidence through the lens of “I am not a failure.”

Another example that might be salient at this time is considering the facts about your current situation related to the Corona Virus (CVOID-19).  Are you healthy?  Is your family healthy?  Are you doing everything you can to ensure that you all remain safe?  Am I alone in this situation?  Answer those questions.  Those are all facts!  Today you can avoid cognitive distortions (“all or nothing” & “filtering”)!

(Photo by Cody Fitzgerald)

Metaphorically speaking, use current events and circumstances as your muse.

What am I saying here?  Well…  What is the first thing you would think about if I asked you to tell me what is happening in the world today?  I would imagine that the majority of people would reference the Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19).  How it has wreaked havoc on our everyday lives.  How it has devastated lives.  How no matter where we go, we are bound to hear someone talking about something related to it.  How everyone has an opinion about how it should be addressed.  Because of this current event, the circumstances in our lives have been impacted dramatically.

“Yeah, so what is this muse you speak of?” you might ask.  A muse is something that causes us to think deeply about the specific thing, person, situation, etc.…  A muse can also be a source of inspiration for an artist, author, poet, musician, etc…  So, in this instance, I found myself thinking deeply about our current events and circumstances and was inspired.  How can such a dreadful experience be inspiring?  Good question!  This is where the “metaphorically speaking” piece comes in.  As I was deep in thought about our current events and circumstances, I began to compare them to that of a person who suffers from issues with addiction.

“WHAT”?!..  Yes, hear me out.  Consider yourself (a person with addiction issues) as the world and your addiction as the Carona Virus.  Up until the addiction manifested, your life was manageable.  Maybe you had some bad breaks, but you were always able to find a way to get by.  Then, slowly you started experiencing some terrible circumstances.  You began feeling symptoms of withdrawal.  You started waking up and craving the source of your addiction.  You couldn’t go to sleep without indulging in the source of your addiction.  At this point, life is getting difficult, but it is still manageable.  Then, BOOM!  Something drastic happens, you lose your job, get arrested, lose custody of your children, etc… 

Now your addiction has wreaked havoc on your life. It is the main cause of your devastation.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, it is always on your mind.  You hear everyone telling you different things about your addiction.  Some people judge you.  Some people encourage you.  Others ignore you.  Almost everyone tells you that you need to quit.  Regardless, your addiction has impacted the circumstances of your life dramatically.  Now you can’t drive, see your children, or go to work. 

Now your addiction has wreaked havoc on your life. It is the main cause of your devastation.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, it is always on your mind.  You hear everyone telling you different things about your addiction.  Some people judge you.  Some people encourage you.  Others ignore you.  Almost everyone tells you that you need to quit.  Regardless, your addiction has impacted the circumstances of your life dramatically.  Now you can’t drive, see your children, or go to work. 

So where do you go from there?  Well, let’s go back to our metaphor.  What has the world done when it’s circumstances have been dramatically impacted?  Take action!  Do not wait for your addiction to ruin you.  Sure it has devastated you, but it hasn’t won yet!  Don’t ignore your symptoms! Seek help!  Avoid risky situations! Do research! Talk to people that have overcome similar issues!  Focus on remaining positive and keep hope and faith.  Just like the world, you have experienced adversity before.  Maybe not at this magnitude, but just like the world, you will not give up!  Today you can, metaphorically speaking, use current events and circumstances as your muse to remain sober!

(Photo by Markus Spiske )