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Strategies to Overcome Cognitive Distortions and Combat Negative Thoughts

Angela Paoli
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A woman dealing with negative thoughts due to cognitive distortions.
Cognitive distortions, a form of distorted thinking that can negatively influence your perception of reality, are more common than you might think.

Online therapy offers a valuable platform for addressing cognitive distortions. A 2021 study on social media content revealed that people with depression are more likely to express cognitive distortions. These distortions include taking things personally, basing thoughts on feelings rather than facts, and seeing situations in black-and-white absolutes.

As a licensed therapist, I'll walk you through modifying cognitive patterns that may negatively impact your life. With the right tools and support, you can start a journey towards a more positive and realistic perspective of life.

» Support your mental health with cognitive behavioral therapy.

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

From a psychological standpoint, cognitive distortions are irrational thought patterns that skew your view of reality. These patterns often lead to emotional distress because they create negative interpretations of events.

Research suggests that cognitive distortions may develop as a coping mechanism in response to challenging life events. The longer and more severe these events are, the more likely a person is to develop these thought patterns. Cognitive distortions could have evolved as a survival strategy for humans, helping us to manage and adapt to challenging situations and environments.

Cognitive distortions often lead to negative feelings and behaviors, creating thinking traps that affect your mental health. If you experience these kinds of thoughts for a long time, you might start to feel signs of depression or experience symptoms of anxiety.

These distortions can also worsen stress, creating a cycle where making decisions, maintaining good relationships, or solving problems is hard.

A woman combatting with cognitive distortions and negative thoughts.

Common Signs of Cognitive Distortions

Here are common signs of cognitive thinking patterns:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: You see things as only good or bad. If you're not perfect at something, you might think you're a complete failure, overlooking any progress you've made.
  • Catastrophizing: You expect the worst here, even without real evidence. For example, a small mistake might lead you to worry excessively about serious consequences, like losing your job.
  • Overgeneralization: When you apply one negative experience to your whole life. If something goes wrong once, like a bad date, you might think it means you will always fail in that area.
  • Personalization: You connect things around you directly to yourself, even when unrelated. If a friend is upset, you might think it's because of something you did.
  • "Mind-reading": This means assuming you know what others are thinking without real proof. If someone is quiet around you, you might think they're bored or disinterested without considering other reasons.

» Feeling under pressure? Try these 10 practical ways to handle stress.

5 Strategies to Cope With Cognitive Distortions

1. Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools for identifying and managing negative thoughts. They help you recognize and label these distortions, preparing you for change. This will also improve your spiritual wellness, which is your connection to and feelings of harmony with the world and those around you.

Spend 10 minutes each morning practicing mindfulness. Focus on your breath and observe your thoughts without judgment. When a negative thought arises, label it as a cognitive distortion and gently redirect your focus to your breath. Consider using mindfulness and meditation apps to help you.

A woman practising mindfulness and meditation to combat her cognitive distortions.

2. Regular Journaling

Journaling is an effective way to process thoughts. It involves writing down your thoughts and comparing them to real-life evidence, helping you question and challenge cognitive distortions.

Every evening, write down any negative thoughts you experienced during the day. Next to each thought, write down evidence that supports or contradicts it. This practice helps you see if your thoughts are based on facts or distortions.

3. Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring focuses on changing and replacing negative thoughts with more balanced ones. This might include concentrating on evidence that contradicts your distorted thinking.

When you think, "I always fail," challenge this by listing instances where you have succeeded. This helps reframe your thinking to a more balanced perspective. A platform like BetterHelp can help you with cognitive restructuring techniques to boost your mental wellness.

4. Gratitude, Self-Compassion, and Reality Testing

Engaging in gratitude practices, fostering self-compassion, and performing reality tests with others' feedback are methods to counteract negative biases.

Keep a gratitude journal, noting three things you’re grateful for daily. Practice self-compassion by speaking to yourself kindly, as you would to a friend. For reality testing, ask a trusted friend for their perspective on a situation you may view negatively.

5. Self-Reflection

Self-reflection, journaling, and asking open-ended questions help you understand personal patterns and align life with your values. This involves making time for yourself and enhancing self-awareness.

Reflect on your most significant challenges and achievements at the end of each week. Ask yourself, "What did I learn about myself this week?" or "How did my reactions to events align with my values?" List your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for growth, and potential threats to your well-being. This can be done monthly to track personal growth and changes.

How Online Therapy Helps With Cognitive Distortions

Online therapy is a convenient and effective way to receive support for cognitive distortions from the comfort of your home. It offers flexible scheduling and assignments and interventions to help reframe your thoughts.

The good news is that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can improve mental health conditions. It can reduce emotional ups and downs and promote your overall well-being. Platforms like Online-Therapy.com offer comprehensive CBT resources to help you recognize and challenge cognitive distortions.

Some online therapy services like Talkspace and Cerebral use a combination of real-time video sessions, messaging, and resource libraries to provide support.

Therapeutic Approaches for Types of Distortions

Therapists often use unique approaches for different types of cognitive distortions. They're skilled at identifying them and helping you recognize and label your thoughts accurately.

For instance,

  • For black-and-white thinking: The "Mindful Gray Areas" technique helps you see that everything isn't extreme. It encourages you to find middle-ground solutions.
  • For catastrophizing: "Reality Checking" involves looking at the evidence for the worst-case scenario and considering your ability to cope if it were to happen.
  • For "mind-reading": "Open Communication and Fact-checking" suggests gathering concrete evidence and talking with others to understand their thoughts and feelings.
  • For discounting the positive: "Highlighting Positive Events" prompts you to tell the full story of an event, focusing on positive aspects and reflecting on good experiences.

Why It’s Important to Recognize Cognitive Distortions

Awareness of these patterns allows you to counteract irrational thoughts, build resilience, and avoid negative behaviors. These distortions can also significantly affect your relationships and communication, often leading to misunderstandings and conflicts.

Therapy is a valuable tool in increasing your awareness of these distortions. It teaches you to recognize and confront them actively. Techniques such as reality-checking can be particularly effective in countering distorted thinking.

» Ready to recharge? Learn how to make yourself a priority.

Angela Paoli
Angela Paoli writes for Top10.com and is currently works as a tele-health Therapist Associate providing evidence-based treatments to diverse individuals who are experiencing anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar, insomnia, ADHD, etc. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Work and has over a decade of experience working as a licensed social worker and online therapist. She specializes in providing mental health services to US military members and their families.

The author of this article has been paid by Natural Intelligence to write this article. Neither the author nor Natural Intelligence provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or your local emergency number immediately.