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Cognitive Distortions Affecting Stress

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Cognitive distortions are habitual tendencies or patterns of thinking that cause people to make appraisals that are systematically biased in particular ways. When someone has a cognitive distortion that is present and influencing the way they make appraisals, their resulting appraisals will be correspondingly distorted, prejudiced or biased. The distorting influence of such "bad thinking habits" can be lessened by helping people to identify and become conscious of which cognitive distortions they tend to habitually make. Knowing that you are vulnerable to making a particular kind of thinking mistake makes it easier for you to avoid continuing to make that mistake in the present and in the future.

Dr. Beck has written extensively about the many different kinds of cognitive distortions that people commonly fall victim to. Explanations for ten of the more common distortions related to stress follow:

  • Catastrophizing occurs when people expect a disaster or the worst to occur, even though the available evidence does not support such an assessment. For example, catastrophization might be occurring if you think that going to a party where you know only a few people will necessarily be so awful that you won't be able to cope (and therefore will absolutely have a bad time). It's possible that the party might be difficult for you, but how could you really know until you got there? As a secondary example, catastrophization is probably occurring when someone thinks to themselves, "My boyfriend/girlfriend broke up with me, and it is the end of the world! Nobody will ever want a relationship with me again in the future!"

  • Personalization occurs when you develop a habit of overestimating your personal responsibility for causing things to happen and start thinking that everything people say or do is somehow a reaction to you. With personalization, if something bad happens we assume it is our fault; that we caused it to happen. The opposite bias, Externalization, occurs when we habitually refuse to see our role in causing things to happen and end up taking no personal responsibility and instead, blame other people and situations for our problems. Personalization is occurring when someone thinks, "My relationship broke up so it must be all my fault." Similarly, externalization is occurring when someone thinks "My relationship broke up so it must be all my former partner's fault."

  • Filtering occurs when people focus on only one part of a situation and form conclusions based only on that partial consideration rather than looking at the entire situation and forming a more holistic opinion. Filtering commonly occurs when people habitually focus on negative aspects of life by picking out a single negative detail and dwelling on it, while ignoring the positive elements that are also present. For example, if someone tells you that you've done well on a task, but you discount this praise, thinking to yourself that it can't be true because other people did even better than you did, you're probably filtering. You may also be filtering if you get a number of positive and negative reviews for a work you've authored and only believe the negative ones.

  • Polarized thinking, sometimes known as splitting, describes a tendency some people have to view the world in stark, extreme black or white terms rather than to allow for the possibility of a gray area or a mixture of characteristics. For example people who engage in polarized thinking tend to view themselves (and others) as either a total success or a total failure. Because there is always someone who is willing to criticize, this tends to collapse into a tendency for polarized people to view themselves as a total failure. Polarized thinkers have difficulty with the notion of being "good enough" or a partial success. For them it is all or nothing, and if they make one mistake then they will have failed completely.

  • Overgeneralization describes the tendency to form a general conclusion based on only a few pieces of evidence. For example, overgeneralization is occurring when someone fails one math test and then concludes that she is lousy at math. There might be many reasons why the someone fails a math test, including poor teaching, a difficult textbook, or stress in the home. However, none of these potential causes are considered in the rush to form a conclusion to explain the failure. Worse, the formation of the overgeneralized conclusion will often cause the person to avoid math in the future, and potentially fail to learn an important skill that could be learned with a little perseverance.

    The rush to overgeneralize often involves a tendency to engage in filtering and personalization. That is, people who filter and only focus on negative outcomes while ignoring the positive information, and who blame themselves for a failure rather than considering how outside aspects of the situation may have affected it are likely to mistake their limited negative conclusion for a balanced picture of their entire situation. These people do not realize that by projecting that negative conclusion into the future, they are overgeneralizing, going beyond the actual facts and artificially limiting options for the future.

  • Mind reading occurs when people make inferences about what other people are thinking based on their behavior. People who engage in mind reading assume that they know what other people are thinking without bothering to check whether their assumptions are correct. For example, when a friend walks by on the street without acknowledging them, they might think, "I've offended her, so she is ignoring me," when in reality, that friend is merely distracted and in no way feeling offended.

  • Control fallacies involve a bias of viewing yourself as either more or less in control of your situation than you really are. They are related to tendencies towards personalization and externalization. People who personalize situations generally also believe they have control over those situations that they probably don't have, and vice versa, people who reject the idea that they can exert control over situations are more likely to see themselves as passive victims of other people's efforts to control them, and, as a consequence, to externalize.

    Control fallacies can be quite easy to identify, or they can be subtle and hidden. A good example of a more difficult to identify control fallacy occurs when people come to believe that they are responsible for the happiness of other people they care about, for instance, when a spouse tries repeatedly to cheer up a depressive partner (who resists cheering up) and ends up feeling like a failure as a result. It is not really possible to cause someone else to feel happy, but if you have a control fallacy operating, you might knock yourself out trying to make it happen.

  • A Fallacy of Change occurs when someone believes that others will change their ways simply because that person wants them to, or because those other people "should" act differently. This fallacy occurs frequently in marriages and committed relationships when one partner goes into a relationship thinking that their partner has unacceptable flaws that will change over time. It can also happen within therapy relationships when a therapist buys into the common fantasy that patients can be made to change if only the therapist does his or her job properly. When the relationship partner's flaws do not disappear after a while, the other partner can feel betrayed, even though the "flawed" partner did nothing wrong by remaining the same. The feeling of betrayal in such a case is not caused by the partner who did not change, but rather by the collapse of the fallacy of change idea as it is confronted and overwhelmed by the reality of no change happening. Partners who feel betrayed that are aware of their fallacy of change can come to understand that no actual betrayal has occurred. Instead, they have the choice of either accepting their partner "as is" or finding some other means of coping. If the betrayed person in not aware of this style of thinking, he or she may instead blame the other partner in a process of externalization.

    When fallacies of change are in place, people blame, demand, withhold and bargain to try to achieve the desired changes in their partners. The strategy tends to backfire and make situations worse than they need to be. Usually the partners who are targets of a change fallacy feel attacked and pushed around and may become defensive and entrenched, rather than open to change.

  • Emotional Reasoning occurs when people make decisions on the basis of what feels good rather than on the basis of a systematic review of the evidence. In emotional reasoning, we let our feelings guide our interpretation of reality. For example, if we feel like a failure then we must actually be one. If we feel we are ugly then we must actually be ugly. It doesn't matter if a hundred people we trust tell us differently, we still conclude that the facts must be wrong when we are reasoning emotionally.

    Depressed people very commonly end up reasoning emotionally. They may engage in filtering and focus on one piece of bad news in a set of mostly positive news, decide that this bad news means that things are hopeless, and then conclude that because they feel hopeless that they must actually be hopeless. It doesn't matter if they actually have some power to influence their situation, because this fact will be overlooked as long as emotional reasoning holds sway.

    It's not just depressed people who reason emotionally. Almost everyone does this sort of thing on a regular basis. People like to think that they are usually logical decision makers, but unfortunately, this is not generally the case. The way the human brain is wired, it is far easier to make a decision based on feeling than one based on facts. We do not tend to look for facts to support our conclusions; we just accept them because they feel right. For example, people frequently decide who to vote for on the basis of their feelings of pride or outrage or whether they'd like to have a beer with a particular politician, rather than on a politician's actual qualifications to hold office. Politicians harness this style of thinking by bombarding the airwaves with negative ads designed to cause people to form negative emotional impressions of opposition candidates every election cycle.