It’s Noisy in Here: Identifying Cognitive Distortions

Greg Thorkelson, MD with Ryan Reagan, PhD(c), LPC

First, let’s establish something: cognition is not simple.  Cognition and thinking are not the same thing. Thinking is a type of cognition, and while definitions may vary across the literature, for simplicity’s sake let’s just say that cognition is the brain’s behavior.  Also, your brain and your mind are not the same thing.  Everyone knows, that but we go through much of the day conflating the two.  Your brain is an organ.  Each of your organs serve a function.  Your heart does circulation, your lungs do respiration, your brain does cognition.

Cognition is a hot mess, as the kiddos say.  One of the reasons is emotions and memory.  Second, there is a long-standing, centuries old misconception of the mind that refuses to go away—that emotion and reason are somehow in separate areas and that we can just isolate one and not have to deal with the other.  The brain does not operate that way. Your brain is composed of billions of neurons that form networks. The brain is a complex array of networks layered upon networks. Cognition involves memory, feelings, goals, thoughts, hurts, aspirations, dreams, etc; nothing about this is simple.

One of the lessons from the field of behavioral economics is that our interpretations of the world can be heavily biased.  Much of our decision making takes place automatically and operates off heuristics, or rules of thumb. You may take a particular route to work to save time because you have developed a rule of thumb that traffic is worse at a specific time of day. The logical thing would be to get in the car and check the traffic report before each trip, so we knew to avoid the traffic jam. This would get time consuming and inefficient, so our brain creates a mental shortcut for judgment. We do this countless times a day without thinking about it. We notice when something disrupts our plans.

We are going to cover some of the most common cognitive distortions in this post.  As a bonus this post can be paired with the previous one that references the ABCDE technique. That technique essentially slows down the cognitive process so that you can see how some of the elements contribute to our evaluations and interpretations. This is helpful because the acts of evaluating and interpreting happen within milliseconds. You would be surprised to know that the brain makes many decisions for you, outside of conscious awareness.

If you do the ABCDE exercise, pay close attention to the “B” level.  This is the space where we typically locate the distortions.  With pessimistic thinking which is common in depression we often find elements that of thinking that are personal, permanent, or pervasive (the 3 P’s). With anxiety the “B” level often has a lot of assumptions that may contain elements of the 3P’s. Included below are a handful of the most common cognitive distortions.

Polarized (All-or-Nothing) Thinking: also called “black or white” thinking.  Characterized by either/or thinking, excludes the possibility of “both/and.”  Example: “I can be both a good student and get A’s and B’s” as opposed to “I get A’s or I am a bad student.”

Catastrophizing: worst-case scenario thinking. If A, then B (with B being catastrophic). Example: If the boss does not like this presentation, I am going to get fired.

Overgeneralizing: drawing sweeping conclusions from limited data. Example: tried baseball and had a poor season = I’m no good at sports

Filtering: distorting reality by magnifying or minimizing to arrive at a negative interpretation. Example: ever notice a small spot on your shirt and that is all you can notice for the rest of the day? You then make the leap to everyone is seeing this. This is an example of magnification. Minimizing the positive can also happen—you receive a performance review that is very good but focus only on the area that was negative.

Control Fallacies: this can be external or internal and associated with how we perceive control of events. Externalizing involves assigning control to sources outside of the self—“I had no ability to control x and prevent y, whereas internalizing assigns an exaggerated sense of control—“If I had done x, y never would have happened.”

The Tyranny of Shoulds: the “should voice.” I should be doing x, I should not have done y,  

Emotional Reasoning: because I feel it, it must be true.

Fortune Telling: making assumptions about events that have yet to happen. Example: Your anxiety about that upcoming date leads to a prediction that it will go terribly.

Mind Reading: substituting your own thinking for what you believe others are thinking about you. Example: “they sighed when I walked in the door, obviously they did not want to see me.”

 

 

All Blog Posts

November 17, 2022

Depression Options That Work

November 17, 2022

Adapting To A Changing Landscape

August 30, 2022

We Need to Talk About Overdose

May 23, 2022

It’s Noisy in Here: Identifying Cognitive Distortions

March 23, 2022

How To Shift A Mindset: Pessimism to Optimism

February 7, 2022

On Grief

November 4, 2021

The Cognitive Triad

October 26, 2021

Thoughts on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

September 21, 2021

The Therapeutic Potential of Ketamine

September 21, 2021

Psychedelics in Mental Health

September 8, 2021

Are You Meditating?

August 13, 2021

Are We There Yet? (Post-Covid Anxiety)

July 22, 2021

Languishing—The Mood State of the Pandemic

July 6, 2021

Neurofeedback—New Hope for ADHD?

June 24, 2021

Finding The Right Therapist

June 16, 2021

Living with OCD

June 9, 2021

CBD and Anxiety

June 1, 2021

Demystifying Bipolar Disorder

May 25, 2021

When to Ask for Help?

May 18, 2021

Good News on Difficult to Treat Anxiety and Depression—TMS.

May 11, 2021

The Nexus Group Announces Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (Deep TMS) Available for Pittsburgh Community

Press Release- The Nexus Group now offering Brainsway TMS Treatment

May 11, 2021

What do we know about post-Covid?

How is Post-Covid Syndrome affecting the Mental Health community

March 5, 2021

4 Commonly Asked Questions About Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Nexus answers a few commonly asked questions about TMS Therapy.

February 26, 2021

Things to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

Are you experiencing SAD this season? What you can do to improve your mood!

February 18, 2021

TMS Therapy at the Nexus Group

TMS Therapy is now available at the Nexus Group.

December 16, 2020

Coping with your ADHD and COVID19

Effectively handling the current situation can be a scary task to take on...

December 16, 2020

Mental Hygiene During COVID19: Recommendations from (WHO)

With a global pandemic spreading, many of us are bound to be anxious and distressed.

December 16, 2020

Find the Silver Lining: Ways to Remain Positive this Weekend

The week has come to a close and we are left to spend yet another weekend sitting on the couch

December 16, 2020

The Ever-Blurring Lines of O.C.D. During COVID-19

As the weeks press on in quarantine, we are urged take extra precautions.

December 16, 2020

Victims of Domestic Violence: Who to Turn to?

Stuck inside, it is easy to feel trapped as we wait for cases of COVID-19 to dwindle.

December 16, 2020

Date Night Plans, Anyone?

Date nights don’t have to be dull just because you’re stuck inside.

December 16, 2020

A Few Questions to Ask Yourself Daily:

It’s important to clear your head regularly in order to alleviate stress or tension.

December 16, 2020

Parents Helping Children with Autism: Coping with Transitions and Change

A strategical approach to help your Autistic children cope with transitions and change.

December 16, 2020

How Helping Others Can Help You

Giving does not have to be overly complicated. See how helping others can help you!

July 2, 2020

Safely Entering Phase Yellow

Phase yellow shows a positive step in the right direction.

July 2, 2020

Managing Bipolar Disorder Amid the Pandemic

A few helpful tips on how to manage your Bipolar disorder during the pandemic.

July 2, 2020

How to Journal for Your Mental Health

Journaling can benefit your mental health. Here are some practical steps on how to approach it.

July 2, 2020

Experiencing Grief During COVID-19

Some practical steps on how to overcome grief during COVID.

July 2, 2020

Waiting Out Another Weekend at Home

How to keep your brain active at home during the pandemic!