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Cognitive Distortions: The thinking errors that can affect anxiety

Thinking errors, also known as cognitive distortions, are thoughts and beliefs that are biased, irrational, and unhelpful. This is why they are called errors, as they give us an inaccurate view of ourselves, the situation we are in, or the world around us.

Persistently engaging in thinking errors can cause or exacerbate our anxiety. By listening to and believing our irrational thoughts, we may end up changing our behaviour in a way that allows our anxiety to persist and convince ourselves that our thinking errors are right. This is a vicious cycle, and it might help to know some of the most common thinking errors so that you can spot them.


Black-and-White Thinking

Black-and-white thinking is a common thinking error in which we think only in extremes — there are no grey areas.

When we engage in black-and-white thinking, we tend to focus only on the absolute negatives of a situation and disregard any of the positives. Imagine that you are a student and you have just received results back from an exam. You passed the exam, but you scored slightly lower than you expected. If you engage in black-and-white thinking, you may be telling yourself "I’m a complete failure! I can’t believe I did so poorly on this exam. I should just give up".

Engaging in black-and-white thinking on a regular basis can harm our self-esteem, our relationship with others, and our mental well-being. When you find yourself stuck in black-and-white thinking, challenge the thoughts. Ask yourself if there are other explanations or a more positive way to view it. For example, with the exam, you could instead think, "I still passed the exam, but I didn’t get the score I wanted. However, I still did well considering all the stress I’ve been under lately. I will study hard for the next one, and I won’t give up.’

Catastrophising

When we catastrophise, we expect that the worst-case scenario is going to happen. We focus only on the most negative possible outcome and magnify the likelihood that it will come true. An example of catastrophising could be: "I am going to mess up my presentation at the big meeting, and then I’m going to get fired. This is going to ruin my life".

In the example, the thinker leaves no room for any positive outcome and typically places unrealistic weight on a single negative outcome. They simply tell themselves that the worst-case scenario will happen. This increases their anxiety and makes them more nervous about their big meeting.

To reduce catastrophising, we must recognise when we are doing it, and then practice more positive thinking. A much healthier and balanced outlook would be: "This is an important meeting, but I’ve prepared so well for it. Even if I mess it up, my colleagues will understand. Anxiety in meetings is very common".

In cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), you can combine evidence from exposure therapy to reframe your thoughts. You might start by attending smaller, less stressful meetings and noting down how you feel at the start and end of the meeting, and slowly build up to attending all meetings that give you anxiety. After each successful exposure, write down how you felt afterwards until you retrain your brain to understand that the situation is not a threat. Then, you use this evidence to invalidate the thinking error; "I used to avoid all big meetings, but the past few that I have done have gone well and the evidence suggests I won’t freak out".

Mind-reading

Mind-reading is another common thinking error where we assume we know what other people are thinking. This can manifest in many different situations but can be particularly stressful for people with social anxiety, agoraphobia, or health anxiety. For example, "Everyone here thinks I’m weird!" or "If I have a panic attack on this bus, everyone is going to laugh at me and think I’m crazy".

It is important to remember that we cannot mind-read what others are thinking. A helpful way to reframe mind-reading thinking errors is to imagine what you would do if the situation was reversed. If you were having dinner with some new friends and one of them was nervous, would you think they were weird, or would you assume that they were just shy? If you see someone panicking on the bus, are you going to laugh at them, or are you going to feel empathetic towards them?

Overgeneralisation

Overgeneralisation thinking errors are when we take one incident and claim it happens all the time. For example, "I had a panic attack once on this plane, so I’ll always panic on planes! I’ll never be able to travel again".

This way of thinking can convince us that our anxiety or depression is far more prevalent in our lives than it really is, and so can be very detrimental to well-being and daily life. When challenging overgeneralisation thinking errors, you should first look at the evidence. Do you always panic on planes, or was it just one isolated incident due to additional stress? Are you using words such as "never" or "always" to describe an incident that has only happened a handful of times?

The above is not an exhaustive list and there are many other types of thinking errors that can occur. Thinking errors can keep us anxious or depressed or feeling stuck if we do not identify them and challenge them. A core focus of CBT is to challenge and reframe thinking errors. One way to do this is to keep a journal of how you perceive a situation that frightens you, and then write down how you perceive the situation after you have done it.

So, let’s say you have a presentation to deliver at a big meeting and you’re feeling nervous. In the morning you write in your journal, "I am going to mess this up. I always do". You then go to work, attend the meeting, and give the presentation, despite the fact you’re very nervous. When you get home you write in your journal again: "Even though I was still nervous, I didn’t mess up the presentation. I hesitated a few times, but overall, it went well. I feel good!". This helps us challenge our thoughts the next time, as we have evidence that our thinking errors aren’t factual, and eventually, we stop believing them.

When you notice a thinking error, challenge it. Remind yourself that your mind is not always telling you the truth and that we can make errors in our judgement of a situation or feeling. Note it down, find evidence to disprove it, and reframe it into a positive thought.

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