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  • Writer's pictureDr. E Farrell

Change your thoughts to change your behavior

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

Much of what rules our daily lives goes on outside of our awareness. The brain directs all of the complex interactions that go on in our bodies to keep us alive. We develop patterns in the way we behave and think that are based on thoughts and beliefs. The experiences and messages directed toward us, especially during childhood, can have a profound effect on how we view ourselves and the world.

Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that can develop because of how we interpret the things that happen to us. They result from making incorrect connections between things that are not really connected. They are irrational beliefs that end up feeding negative emotional states such and anxiety and depression and, if they are not challenged, become stronger over time.

Here are five (5) of the most common cognitive distortions.

Overgeneralization: Overgeneralization is assuming a pattern based on a single event or using a past experience to make an overly broad conclusion about future events. For example, a person might assume after one unsuccessful job interview that all interviews are a waste of time, or that rejection in a relationship means that rejection is inevitable; therefore, why try?

All or Nothing Thinking : This type of cognitive distortion is also called "Black and White Thinking" because it involves thinking in extremes. If I'm not perfect, I'm a failure. Things are either wrong or right, good or bad, fantastic or terrible. There are no gray areas.

Jumping to Conclusions: This can take two forms: Predictive Thinking, also called Fortune Telling, is a tendency to make assumptions about future events based upon little or no evidence. The second form is called Mind Reading. Mind Reading is assuming what others are thinking based upon your preconceived beliefs about them. Assuming someone is angry or rejecting you because they don't call, or that they have it out for you when you disagree with one another are both examples of mind reading.

Emotional Reasoning: Emotional reasoning is believing that feeling something makes it true, outside of any other evidence. Feelings are not facts. “I feel embarrassed; therefore I must look like an idiot”. “It feels like she doesn't like me”. Emotional reasoning underlies a lot of misunderstanding, anger and hurt feelings because the individual assumes facts without real evidence.

Catastrophizing: This is also referred to as Magnification or Minimization: Exaggerating the importance of an insignificant event or minimizing the importance of something that is significant. For example, a good student allows themselves to believe that their future is ruined because of one bad grade. Minimizing might involve dismissing one’s own positive traits or successes. There are more cognitive distortions listed in the chart below.

How can I change these bad thinking habits?

For most people some of these thinking patterns will seem familiar. Do you recognize any? If so, how do you begin the process of breaking these often ingrained ways of thinking?

Cognitive Therapy was developed in 1961 by Aaron Beck M.D., a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. He had observed that while he was conducting psychoanalysis on his patients, they seemed to have an internal dialogue which he called "automatic thoughts" that were unrealistic and self defeating. It was not the external events in their lives that were causing the most emotional distress, but their perception of those events that affected how they felt.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is now the most commonly used scientifically supported psychotherapy approach. The techniques of CBT are very helpful in treating a wide range of mental disorders by helping individuals learn to think in ways that are no longer self-defeating.

You can adapt some of the techniques of CBT by doing the following:

Identify your distorted thoughts and challenge them by replacing them with thoughts that are more accurate. For example, if you find you are continually responding to negative events by telling yourself that bad things always happen to you, you might replace that with a statement that is more accurate. What are the successes that you have had in your life, however small? What is an alternate way of thinking about how negative events in your life have affected you? Is it possible that through these negative events you have found ways to overcome that involve strengths you are not giving yourself credit for?

It takes time to break unhelpful patterns of thinking but with practice you can learn these skills and have a sense of control that can empower you to make the changes needed to live a happier more fulfilling life.

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