Updated: Oct 23, 2019
Blog written by Rebecca Hicks, RN BScN
You may be wondering what a cognitive distortion is. Sounds a bit wordy eh? But no need to worry, you don’t need a degree in psychology to understand what it is. It’s actually quite simple and something that most humans do.
A cognitive distortion is a thought that pops into your head that likely does not have a lot of validity to it. Put simply, it’s an unhelpful thought that is usually negative in some way. It's typically irrational, false or inaccurate, and has the potential to cause psychological damage and alter behaviours.
For example, you might have the thought that your neighbour doesn’t like you very much because they barely spoke to you this morning when you saw them in the driveway. But how do you really know that your neighbour doesn’t like you? Perhaps they were running late for work or were having a bad day. The likelihood is that their behaviour had nothing to with you. But there you are, stewing over the idea that they don’t like you and there must have been something you did to tick them off. The problem is you may start acting different around your neighbour or avoid them all together; all because of this one little thought that made its way into your brain. In reality, there is no validity or evidence to prove that the thought is even true unless you ask them for yourself!
This type of cognitive distortion is sometimes referred to as “mind reading”, when a person thinks they know what another person is thinking. As far as I’m aware we haven’t advanced this far in technology yet so telepathy is still impossible. This might seem like a silly example but it happens all the time in different ways.
Common cognitive distortions might come in thoughts such as:
“I’m not smart enough to do (fill in the blank)”
“They’ll never pick me for that job.”
“I bet this pain I’m feeling means there’s something seriously wrong with me.”
“No one really loves me.”
“Something bad is going to happen.”
These types of thoughts usually come from some kind of experience or feeling that we are having, but what’s the evidence that they are actually true? Ask yourself:
"What is the evidence for this?"
"Has this been true in the past?"
"What are the odds of this really happening?"
"What is the worst that could happen?"
We can’t control the thoughts that pop into our head, but we can learn how to manage these thoughts and not add more fuel to the fire. Go ahead and try it! The next time you have a negative thought, challenge it! Ask yourself, what’s the likelihood of this actually being true? It helps put things into perspective by using basic logic!
Okay… sounds simple right? Well we all know it’s not that simple. Most things in life come with hard work and determination, and cognitive restructuring is no different! It takes a lot of practice and being more “in tune” with our thoughts in order to make positive changes.
Try replacing your unhelpful thoughts with statements that are actually true. Self-talk can be constructive or destructive, you get to choose!
Most importantly, don’t forget the promises God has for you. When you are having negative thoughts try to replace them with the words God has given us:
How precious is your unfailing love, O God! - Psalm 36:7
You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you. - Psalm 86:5
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. -Isaiah 41:10
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. -Matthew 6:25-34