You have likely heard some variation of the statement, “You are not your thoughts.” It may seem like utter bullshit but frankly the statement can’t be truer.
As humans, we live with our thoughts 24×7. Our thoughts are such an intimate part of us that so many times we don’t even realize that they are not facts, simply our perceptions broadcast constantly on Personal Universe channel. Not only are our thoughts not facts, sometimes they are as far from reality that they actually disrupt our lives.
Such thoughts are extreme in nature and are referred to as cognitive distortions.
What’s a cognitive distortion and why do so many people have them? Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves. — John M. Grohol, Psych Central
Essentially, these are the ways our brains fool us into thinking things that are just not true. So yes, you are not your thoughts.
Why Does Our Brain Fool Us?
Why does our brain fool us? Isn’t it supposed to help us, be on our side? After all, it’s our body organ and we take the habit of feeding it seriously.
When it comes to our brain, we have to remember that it is an organ which is not made for happiness or bliss but for a single purpose — survival. Our brain doesn’t care if a thought (especially a repetitive one like I am a failure) is true or not as long as it serves its purpose i.e. get you to act so that you can SURVIVE and beat the competition. Evolution is a great thing but a tricky one.
5 Most Common Distortions Resulting in Anxiety
Here are the 5 most common cognitive distortions that multiply anxiety.
1) Mental Filtering
Mental filtering refers to the way our brains filter out a particular piece of information. For example, during a feedback session with your boss, your brain may pick up on one piece of negative information and think about it obsessively while ignoring the ninety pieces of positive information that your boss shared about your work.
2) Jumping to conclusions
Without getting all the facts about a situation, your brain may infer many things from a single event without bothering to check if any of them is correct. Usually such conclusions are negative in nature and have no or little basis in reality.
Catastrophizing refers to making a mountain out of a molehill. Your brain takes a piece of information and then distorts it by magnifying its importance in your life. If your boss says a negative comment about your work, you may catastrophize it by thinking that it is the end of your job or you are about to get fired.
As the name suggests, personalization refers to taking each piece of information as a personal affront to your ego. Your dinner host may suggest that punctuality is a lost trait these days while talking about the general idea rather than pointing at a particular person, your brain may infer that the host is indirectly pointing at you.
5) Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning refers to reasoning using your emotions. ‘I will act this way because I feel this is true’ is the way emotional reasoning works. For example — leaving a dinner party because you feel that the host is paying more attention to the other attendees which may or may not be true in reality.
All Distortions Are Related
No distortion happens in a vacuum. All distortions are intimately connected with each other. For example: At a dinner with your friend with whom you had a fight recently, you may filter out a single negative sentence and jump to the conclusion that he is still angry with you. You may then catastrophize the event by thinking that this will be the end of your friendship. You may then feel like ending the dinner midway because apparently your friend isn’t behaving with you properly. Here most distortions discussed above happened in quick succession leading to an anxious and disappointing evening.
Dealing With Cognitive Distractions
The first step to dealing with any cognitive distortion is to be aware that your thinking has become distorted in the moment. The next step would be to talk back to yourself with contradicting evidence. It also helps to talk to yourself in a kind and compassionate manner, the same way you would talk to a loved one. If you start to feel anxious, come back to the present moment. Do the classic mindful exercise of naming five things you can see, hear, touch, smell and taste.
When it comes to cognitive distortions, the key is awareness.
Be more mindful during the day and keep your cognitive distortions at bay.
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