Personally, I believe one’s undergraduate years are well spent learning to ask good questions, carrying a countenance of curiosity about the world. One can wonder about practically anything: about oneself, that one strange thing your housemade does, about God, a concept presented in a class you enjoy, or even what life is like for the snails you sometimes see on the sidewalk. What, is that weird?
You get my point; curiosity is good. So here’s something I’ve wondered about that feels important for our collective and individual well-being as college students. Why do humans, myself included, experience what fancy theorists call “cognitive distortions”? What are they, and what can be done about them?
What are cognitive distortions?
Now, if I opened up to a friend about a recent experience of incessant, unwanted, and unpleasant thoughts, and they turned to me and said, “Cooper, these are cognitive distortions. Let me give you a dose of reality,” I would probably feel very invalidated (and probably a little angry!). I realize the term “cognitive distortions” seems a little dry and clinical, of which human emotion and experience is not. Keep reading for an understanding of cognitive distortions that showcases the concepts’ usefulness (a bit more gently).
Dysfunctional thinking involves ways of thinking that are inaccurate, unrealistic, or unbalanced (Farmer & Chapman, 2016). One example is black-and-white thinking. Reality is either all or none, everything or nothing. Say you’re a bit late to lunch and your friend is peeved since they’re on a time crunch. You might think, “I can’t do anything right.” Or the peeved friend may think, “Nobody truly cares for me [since my friend is always late!]” Both of these cognitions are dramatized, simplistic assertions about reality that are built on faulty and unfair evidence. In this instance, a therapist might gently ask the friend who struggles with punctuality whether there are other parts of their life that they are doing quite well in – to replace their unbalanced thinking with a touch of fairness to themselves. As for the person convinced nobody cares for them, it might be worth exploring whether it is helpful to generalize this single disappointing experience across all other relationships, evolving into a negative self-value statement!
According to cognitive-behavioral theory and psychotherapy, thought distortions play an important role in the development and persistence of psychological distress and disorders. The theory states that unhelpful thinking and thought patterns influence one’s mood and behavior tremendously. In fact, researchers assert that those wretched symptoms – whether physiological (stomach pain, a tense neck, disturbed sleep, etc.) or emotional (persistent agitation, lack of motivation, intense sadness, unrelenting fear, etc.) – each carry with them a unique set of cognitive distortions and beliefs that uphold them (Farmer & Chapman, 2016).
What can be done?
First, we must acknowledge that the knee-jerk reaction to distort reality is deeply human, and therefore must be accepted. No matter how good one’s childhood was, it is not uncommon for someone to experience distress stemming from an unhelpful assumption or patterned cognitive response to a specific situation. All of us, to varying degrees, are aboard the cognitive distortion boat. Who needs a cruise to Puerto Vallarta, anyway?
So how can we promote our well-being in this department? Researchers propose we begin to bring into conscious awareness our implicit thoughts and assumptions that may or may not be helpful to us (Kürümlüoğlugil & Tanriverdi, 2022). Trying to pinpoint which contexts or circumstances provoke certain thoughts and feelings, and maybe writing them down or consciously saying them out loud or to a friend, is an incredible place to begin. A piece of paper bearing your unique handwriting, full of your own dysfunctional cognitive statements is considered a “thought record” or “cognitive tool” (Alexander & Tatum, 2014). Staring at your grocery list of cognitive distortions is where your curiosity and investigation skills come in. Great! Maybe don’t hang this one up on the fridge, though.
In case this feels daunting, let me tell you that there is hope! In a study by Alexander & Tatum (2014), participants with anxiety and depressive disorders were trained to use tools that recorded their cognitive distortions, and then were assessed at 3, 6, and 12 months for levels of anxiety and depression. Results at each monthly milestone showed a significant statistical reduction of depression, and a smaller effect for anxiety.
To all my Biola peers whose well-being and psychological equilibrium are diminished by cognitive distortions, I challenge you to think about your thinking (get it?). You might find that pursuing our own mental well-being may enhance your relationship and communication skills with friends and peers, coworkers, roommates, parents, significant others, and just about everyone else!
Alexander, V. L., & Tatum, B. C. (2014). Effectiveness of cognitive therapy and mindfulness tools in reducing depression and anxiety: A mixed method study. Psychology, 5(15), 1702–1713. https://doi-org.ezproxy.biola.edu/10.4236/psych.2014.515178
Farmer, R. F., & Chapman, A. L. (2016). Overview. In Behavioral interventions in cognitive behavior therapy: Practical guidance for putting theory into action., 2nd ed. (pp. 3–20). American Psychological Association. https://doi-org.ezproxy.biola.edu/10.1037/14691-001
Kürümlüoğlugil, R., & Tanrıverdi, D. (2022). The effects of the psychoeducation on cognitive distortions, negative automatic thoughts and dysfunctional attitudes of patients diagnosed with depression. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 27(10), 2085–2095. https://doi-org.ezproxy.biola.edu/10.1080/13548506.2021.1944654