Our thoughts influence how we feel. They alter how we act. They even go so far as to shape our very realities; what we think drives what we pay attention to and thus what we perceive.
When our thoughts are dysfunctional, they can throw the rest of our lives out of balance, wreaking havoc and creating stress, anxiety, and despair. (This is particularly true for those of us with chronic illness, because we often feel unable to control our realities.) Cognitive distortions are a prime way in which this happens.
Cognitive distortions are dysfunctional and inaccurate thought patterns that our minds use to keep us feeling bad, stressed, and anxious. They generally sound rational to us, but they’re not. Instead, they’re grotesque distortions of reality that our negative feelings require in order to exist. There are many cognitive distortions, including
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: Inside this distortion, there is no middle ground. Everything is black or white. Either you’re a success or you’re a failure. Everything is wonderful or life isn’t worth living.
2. Filtering: We filter out the positive aspects of something and focus only on the negative. Instead of looking back at our week and remembering the fun dinner we had with our spouse and the wonderful story times with our children, we remember only the pain and symptoms of our migraine attacks and the list of things we didn’t get done.
3. Overgeneralizing: If one thing goes wrong, everything will. If your spouse is distant today, it means he/she is planning to leave you. If you feel bad today, you’re going to feel bad forever.
4. Jumping to Conclusions: Inside this distortion, we might jump to a conclusion – everyone thinks we’re malingering – for no apparent reason. We become convinced that our assumption is correct, and that our predictions will come to pass.
5. Magnifying and Minimizing. Our successes or desirable qualities are small and insignificant. Our failures or unfavorable characteristics are catastrophic. Positivity is minimized; negativity is magnified.
6. Personalizing. Inside this distortion, everything anyone does or says is a direct reflection on us. If our doctor is stressed and hurries us through a visit, it is because we didn’t have the right answer or we were annoying her. If we go to a friend’s party and he runs out of food mid-way through, it’s because he really didn’t want us to come and hoped we’d stay home.
7. Disqualifying the Positive. Inside this distortion, we actively change neutral or positive experiences into negative ones. If we get a “Good job!” from the boss at work, for example, we immediately begin thinking it must be because we’re normally awful at what we do instead of that we did an exceptional job that deserved special praise.
8. Using “Should,” “Must,” and “Ought” Statements. Inside this distortion, there are ironclad rules about how we and other people are supposed to behave. When we fail to meet our own expectations, we feel intense guilt and shame. When other people fail to meet our expectations, we experience anger and resentment. This can be particularly problematic for those of us with migraines, whose day-to-day lives may not measure up to our “shoulds.”
9. Relying on Emotional Reasoning. We believe that whatever we feel must be true. “I feel lazy, so I must be lazy.” “I feel stupid, so I must be stupid.”
10. Labeling. This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Inside this distortion, an argument turns someone into “a real jerk,” and a simple mistake turns us into “losers.” This is particularly problematic for migraineurs who may label themselves as “worthless” or “useless” on a particularly symptomatic day.
Thinking in these ways invites feelings of anxiety and hopelessness and creates stress and fatigue. (After all, it’s difficult to feel hopeful and calm when you believe everything is your fault and you’re a total failure.) Unfortunately, many of us fall into these patterns over and over again, especially if we have something in our lives – like chronic illness – that makes daily living a challenge. Thankfully, however, we can alter our thought patterns and change things. Stay tuned for my next piece, “How to Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Overcome Stress, Anxiety, and Cognitive Distortions” to learn how.