How to Cope with Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions, like all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing, are tricks our minds play on us. Learn different ways to stop them and get yourself out of negative thinking traps.

by Emilie Glen Colsted

How to cope with cognitive distortions

In the previous post, we talked about two of the most common cognitive distortions - all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing and how to spot them. Taking it a step further, we're going to look at how to stop these distortions.

All-or-nothing thinking and complexity

One way to cope with the all-or-nothing thoughts that we encounter is to try and open up to complexity and look between the two extremes. This technique is also called "grey thinking" which is used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

When we separate out "right" from "wrong" and "good" from "bad", we see the world in black and white - as opposed to the diverse rainbow it actually is. This may initially make understanding the world simpler.

But, simplifying reality into easy, binary terms usually robs us of the complexity that makes life rich and nuanced. In other words, it can hold us back from experiencing the richness of our lives and relationships.

As a way to deal with this kind of thinking you can try to find balance and nuances. When noticing all-or-nothing thoughts you can curiously look for other options. E.g. you can list as many options as you can imagine if your thoughts are locked into two possible outcomes.

Or you can open up to nuances and other ways to look at a situation by saying something like this to yourself:

  • "Both of us can be partially right"

  • "There are multiple ways to solve this problem" or

  • "I have both good and not-so-good qualities"

All-or-nothing thinking and cognitive defusion

When you detect all-or-nothing thinking you can say to yourself: "I observe that I'm having a thought saying X".

This is called cognitive defusion or deliteralization which is a technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to gain distance from yourself and the thought. Simply observing your thoughts in this way can help you gain clarity about what's making you feel upset and help you see that the thought is making you focus on the negative side of things.

Catastrophizing and acceptance

A great way to cope with catastrophizing is to practice the skill of acceptance, which is a core component of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. Uncertainties are a natural part of a wholehearted life and we can foster acceptance and patience by facing challenges bravely when they arise.

You can try to tolerate uncertainties by allowing the future to be the future. Instead of focusing on how to prevent unpleasant surprises and control future outcomes, try to bring awareness back to the present moment.

When you experience unhelpful catastrophizing, then try to create distance to the overwhelming or uncomfortable feelings caused by this thinking error by simply noticing it: "I'm catastrophizing right now".

You can also try to tackle your need for certainty by saying to yourself: "It's okay. This is just a scenario and I do not need to fix or do anything".

Catastrophizing and questions

Another way to cope with unhelpful catastrophizing is to curiously question the logic behind the thought. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) this technique is called the disputation method.

We automatically tend to jump from problem to disaster and a lot of us may not even realize that the scenarios causing us distress are exaggerated or unrealistic.

When you notice catastrophizing thoughts, you can therefore examine the evidence behind them by asking yourself:

  • "Is this perceived disaster a probable outcome?” or

  • "Would it really be a catastrophe if X happened?"

This is a method to challenge distorted thinking and come up with more helpful thoughts, which is also called cognitive restructuring.

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