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Cognitive Distortions

By Beverly Ward

September 4, 2022

From Science: I have just completed a series of blogs looking at eight types of cognitive distortions. Based on reader feedback, I am now circling back to write generally about cognitive distortions, what they are, what it means that we experience them, and what should be done to improve them. ‘Cognitive’ is a fancy word for ‘thought’. Websters’ dictionary tells us that to distort is to ‘pull or twist something out of shape’. It is easy to deduce that cognitive distortions are thoughts that are distorted, misshapen or unrealistic. A common misconception about cognitive distortions is that all negative thoughts are cognitive distortions and that the goal is to reshape them into positive thoughts. Although negative cognitive distortions are far more common that positive cognitive distortions, both are possible. Both ‘I am the worst person who ever lived’, and ‘I am the best person who ever lived’ are cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions happen when our thoughts are unrealistically positive or unrealistically negative. The goal with cognitive distortions is to reshape them to be realistically positive.

We all experience cognitive distortions to some extent. It is normal and not a problem unless they become dominate in our thought habits or cause us to act and feel in unhelpful ways. Left unaddressed, cognitive distortions can contribute to or worsen mental health struggles. When cognitive distortions become problematic, therapy can help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is especially helpful with cognitive distortions. Although we may have thoughts that enter our minds outside of our control, or even outside of our awareness, we can increase our awareness of our thoughts, take control of them, and reshape them. Reshaping our thoughts changes the way we feel and how we act. When our thinking becomes realistically positive, out feelings and actions become more helpful and beneficial to ourselves and to others.

From Scripture: Scripture has a lot to say about our minds and our thoughts. Romans 12:2 tells us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” Here we see that the transformation comes from renewing our minds. We see that, with a mind renewed by God’s Word, we can test and approve what is God’s will for our lives. We can more closely follow God’s plan for our lives and reap the benefits and blessings of such a life.

Philippians 4:8 lines up with the idea of setting our minds to that which is realistically positive, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” In this verse we see God’s instruction to think about what is true (realistic) and positive (noble, right, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy).

Proverbs 28:26 tells us “Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe”. We need a plumb line with which to line up our thoughts to test that they are right. God’s Word is the Truth by which we can determine if our thoughts are foolish or wise. If what we are thinking is contrary to God’s Word, we are off in our thinking somehow.

Action Plan: The first step in changing any unhelpful thoughts is to recognize that we are having the thought. Although that may seem simple, it isn’t. It helps to think of our minds like an iceberg, in that we see just a small part and the rest is hidden beneath the surface. To increase our awareness of our thoughts, we need to watch for spikes in emotion. When we feel our emotions begin to increase in intensity, we can ask ourselves, “what was I just thinking”. Make a log of some of these thoughts, the ones that are the most distressing, and challenge them with good CBT techniques. While you can make some progress with this on your own, the benefit of a good CBT therapist is exponential.

The Lagniappe:

A therapist explains cognitive distortions

Psalm 119 song


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