How do you deal with distorted thinking

How distorted thinking increases stress and anxiety

Painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

I learned about cognitive biases from a book by David Burns in the 1990s Feeling good: The new mood therapy. I was just off the Faculty Wing at U.C. Davis' law school as dean of the students. I knew how to teach law, but I didn't feel competent to help students who were struggling emotionally.

When I shared my concern with a friend of a therapist, she recommended Feel well. She said it would help me identify when students were involved in distorted thought patterns that increased their stress and anxiety. I don't know who benefited more from the book: the students or me.

Many years later, after getting chronically ill, I found the notes I made on 10 cognitive biases Burns talks about Feel well. I immediately realized that I had a new life challenge to apply it to. I am indebted to him for this piece. I'll describe each cognitive bias, then add a suggestion or two on how to counteract it.

Of course, before you can counteract distorted thinking, you need to become aware that this is what you are dealing with. To do this, it can be helpful to make a list of the 10 biases and then review it every few days. Or you could write down some of your stressful and anxious thoughts and then look to see which of the 10 biases they fall under.

In my examples, I'll focus on biases that the chronically ill are prone to, but those of you who are in good health can substitute a word or two and I'm confident you'll recognize yourself in these examples.

1. Think all or nothing

If you are caught up in this cognitive bias and you are imperfect, you see yourself as a total failure. There is no middle ground. For example: "Because I was in too much pain today to do anything but the dishes, the house is a total mess." (If you are not struggling with your health, you can be "too busy" by "too much" Replace pain ".)

To counteract this cognitive bias, start with a dose of self-compassion for the difficulties you are facing - in my example, the amount of pain you are in. This is one circumstance of your life that just makes it impossible for you to do anything you want. No fault!

Then turn the thought around by focusing on what you are doing did finished: "Given the pain I had today, it's amazing that I managed to do the washing up!" (See my 2019 post on this particular cognitive bias, "How to Break the Painful Habit of 'All or Nothing' Thinking.")

2. Over-generalization

When this cognitive bias rolls in and one thing goes wrong, draw the general conclusion that everything will go wrong. Or if something unpleasant happens, you conclude that it will happen again and again.

I remember an appointment with a doctor when she wasn't as attentive to me as usual. Instead of treating it as one uncomfortable experience (she might have had a really tough day after all), I concluded that she no longer wanted to be my doctor. This assumption on my part led to a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety - unnecessary because she treated me at later appointments with the care I was used to from her.

Here is another example. You decide to take a short walk but can only walk halfway around the block due to your symptoms. You then generalize by saying to yourself, "I'll never be able to get around the block."

To counteract over-generalization, it is worth remembering that an experience that is uncomfortable or doesn't even meet your expectations won't always be like this. It is only your mind to make a false assumption based on an isolated experience.

It is also helpful to keep an eye on the sentence of the well-known Zen monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. He suggests that we ask ourselves, "Am I sure?" before jumping to a conclusion. "Am I sure the doctor doesn't want me as a patient anymore?" (No!) "Am I sure I'll never make it around the block?" (No!) When we question our tendency to over-generalize, we remain open to the many possibilities that the future holds.

3. Mentally filter your experience

Simply put, you filter out the positives of an experience and deal with the negatives and disappointments. Repeated doing can lead to a bleak vision of reality. Whether or not a person is chronically ill, almost all life experiences are a mix of positives and negatives. They have their pleasant aspects and their unpleasant aspects.

Here is an example from my life of how I can filter my experiences to reflect on the negatives and disappointments. When our son and his family come for Thanksgiving, I spend a few hours with them, but I always have to retire to my bedroom before the festivities are over. When I'm not aware of my tendency to engage in this cognitive bias, I stick with who I am in my bedroom could not instead of everything I could. I'll say to myself, "I couldn't stay here all the time" instead of saying, "Wow, I got to have dinner with everyone!"

To counteract this bias, focus on the positive aspects of your experience, especially what you are doing did do. If you're still sad, that's fine: indulge yourself with compassion by possibly repeating a sentence that speaks directly to your disappointment, such as: B. "It was so difficult to leave the meeting while the people were still here."

4. Disqualify the positive

Some of these cognitive biases may sound similar, but there are subtle differences. If you disqualify the positives, don't just stick with the negatives by ignoring the positives like you do with mental filtering. They go one step further and actively transform neutral or positive experiences into negative ones.

Here is an example. You're getting a friendly message on your answering machine from someone you haven't heard from in a long time. Instead of feeling good about it, you make it a negative experience: "She only called because she felt an obligation, not because she wants to continue our friendship."

Disqualifying the positive can have sad consequences, e.g. For example, someone who really wants to keep in touch will not return the call. I've found that it's always best to give people the benefit of the doubt because their motives are almost always good. This is another example of where it is helpful to refer to Thich Nhat Hanh's "Am I Sure?" before a probable positive becomes a negative, e.g. B. the decision that a call was made out of obligation rather than out of simple friendship.

5. Jump to conclusions

Here you are jumping to a negative interpretation, although that is not supported by the facts. Sometimes this is called a "Mind Reading Error." You conclude that someone is thinking negative things about you and then treat it as an established fact, even though that person has never given you cause to think so.

I did this many times when I first got chronically ill. I came to the conclusion that friends and colleagues thought I was a culprit or no longer wanted to work. I had absolutely no evidence then or now that anyone thought this, but I concluded that it was. This added tremendously to my emotional stress and mental suffering.

The best way to counter this is "Am I sure?" Here is another version of the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn: Keep a "Don't-Know Mind". I am sure and I don't know the mind have been invaluable to me since I became chronically ill. In fact, I now rely on them to counteract cognitive biases unrelated to illness.

6. Catastrophic (also known as magnification)

When you're catastrophic, you add to the importance of something that was just happening or something that didn't go the way you wanted it to. It's like looking at the experience through binoculars, which makes everything disproportionate. An example. If one day my symptoms flare up instead of waiting to see if they subside until morning, I will enlarge the experience and convince myself that this is my "new normal". This can be the source of a lot of stress and unhappiness.

I would be surprised if someone reading this hasn't done this at some point and it doesn't have to be health related. We can make ourselves miserable by adding to our disappointments and frustrations. For example, I taught myself the craft of Tunisian crochet. One day a few months ago, when I wasn't doing the second row right, the thought occurred to me, "This is it. You will never learn Tunisian crochet."

To counteract the tendency towards disaster, you should put your experience into perspective. I'm lucky enough to have gotten to this pretty quickly with my experience with Tunisian crochet. I stopped the distorted thinking by saying to myself, “How stupid! I just got a number wrong. Try again. "Now, Tunisian crochet is easy for me; I've even made several scarves. (See my 2017 post on this particular cognitive bias: How to End Catastrophic Thinking.")

7. Rely on emotional thinking

This cognitive bias makes you believe that the way you feel is the way you are. “I feel like a failure in learning to knit. that's why I'm a failure. "" I feel stupid because I didn't know the answer to his question. that's why i'm stupid. "" I feel like I'm bored at lunch; that's why I'm boring. "

To counteract this bias, remember that people often jump to conclusions based on instant emotional responses, but those conclusions do not reflect who they really are. Emotions arise in response to the causes and conditions of the moment and are only temporary. Refuse to treat them as evidence of who you are. Who you are isn't just based on a complex combination of factors - it's not even set in stone because you are constantly changing!

8. Use "should" statements

With this cognitive bias, try to motivate yourself and get in shape mentally and physically using "should" and "shouldn't", "thoughts" and "must". These words are a basis for negative self-judgment and self-blame (as I have already described in this area and in all of my books).

“I. should Exercise. "Well, maybe you shouldn't! There are no fixed and quick" shoulds "and" shouldn't "in life. It depends on your circumstances. Examine what would be most beneficial to you, and then give yours Best to act accordingly.If you have characterized your life in terms of "should" and "shouldn't" you will feel guilty if you miss out on punishment when you really deserve your compassion for making you unjustly impossible Have set standards for yourself.

9. Identify yourself and others

When we label ourselves and others ("I am incompetent", "He is irresponsible"), we are doing some form of over-generalization (No. 2 above) because nobody is just a thing.

I suggest that you counteract this skewed thinking by remembering that labels do nothing other than make us and other people feel bad. Find different ways to describe what happened - words that stick to the facts and don't have labels. For example, instead of “I'm incompetent,” try “This is hard to learn. I'll stick with it.” Instead of “He's irresponsible,” try “I expected him at 4:00 PM, but he won't be until 4:00 PM: 30 o'clock came. "

10. Personalization

Personalization is a major trigger for self-blame. It occurs when you mistakenly see yourself as the cause of an external negative event even though you weren't responsible for it. An example is when you feel responsible for people having a good time being with them.

You can counteract this cognitive bias by relativizing what you actually control in this life. They certainly don't control what other people think or how they feel or whether they are having fun. It always has been and always will be. All you can do is act with kindness and care for yourself and others. The rest is out of your control. (See my 2018 post on this particular cognitive bias, "How to Stop Taking It All Personally.")


We should not be surprised that the mind is so adept at distorted thinking. As the Buddhist teacher Bhante Gunaratana said in a commentary, I quote in my book How to wake up: "Your mind is a screeching, chattering madhouse on wheels ... No problem." How nice to say it's not a problem! Bhante's perspective allows me to more easily hold these distortions and not blame myself when they pop up in my head.

In fact, I find it helpful to shake my head in amazement at the crazy stuff that sometimes comes to mind. I could say something to myself like, "This spirit of mine is so unruly, so unreasonable!" This attitude helps me to recognize that I am engaging in a cognitive bias, and that recognition alone opens the door to finding constructive ways to counter each of these ten biases.

© 2014 Toni Bernhard.

Thank you for reading my paper. Further information can be found at my website.