Challenging Cognitive Distortions to Overcome Anxiety and Depression

By Rick McGregor, MA, LMHCA, Seattle Christian Counseling, PLLC

A Christian Counselor Speaks Again
Part 2 of a 2-Part Series


RICKMC 20130326 9290240623_0d0b3b5a8a_bThe next time you feel depressed, anxious, stressed, or worried, take a moment to notice what it is that feeds your thoughts. It is highly likely that your mind is full of negative thoughts. There is a very strong correlation between what we think and what we feel. In psychology, these types of thoughts are called cognitive distortions. This term simply means that what you are thinking about does not necessarily match up to the reality of what is going on.

In my previous article, I outlined several cognitive distortions that affect people and often feed their anxiety and depression. In this article, I want to share with you several other automatic thoughts that feed your thought processes and ultimately dictate your behavior.

Assuming the Worst

This distortion assumes the worst without testing the evidence. For instance, if your boss scowls at you, you assume that his facial expression means he must be angry with you. A better solution would be to test this assumption and ask your boss an appropriate question, such as: “Boss, are you angry with me?” Assuming self-talk is also involved when you tell yourself, “I know I won’t enjoy myself,” or “I know I will do a lousy job, even though I am prepared.” A more reasonable and healthier approach would be: “I might or might not enjoy myself (do a good job, etc.), but I am willing to keep an open mind and see what happens.”

The Fairy-Tale Fantasy

This distortion involves demanding the ideal from life. This is a special type of “should.” “That’s not fair!” or “Why did that have to happen?” often means: “The world should be different than it is.” The truth is, bad and unfair things happen to good people ̶ sometimes randomly, sometimes because of the unreasonableness of others, and sometimes because of our own imperfections. To expect the world to be different is to invite disappointment. To expect that others always treat us fairly, when they often have their own ideas about what is fair, is also to invite disappointment. Again, a “would” or a “could” is a wise substitute for a “should.” For example, you could say: “It would be nice if things were different or ideal, but they are not. Too bad. Now, I wonder what I can do to make the best of things.”

Unfavorable Comparisons

This cognitive distortion magnifies your own faults and weakness, while emphasizing the strengths of others. It tends to shrink or minimize your strengths and downplays the weaknesses of others. In comparing yourself to others, you always seem inadequate or inferior and are always coming out on the short end of the stick. For example, you say to a friend: “I’m only a housewife and a mother, but Jane is a successful lawyer” (thus minimizing your strengths and magnifying her strengths). Your friend replies: “But you are an excellent mother and homemaker. Jane’s a workaholic.” You respond: “Yes, but (minimizing the other’s faults and your accomplishments) look at the cases she has won. She is doing something really significant (thus magnifying her strengths).” One way to challenge this distortion is to ask: “Why must I compare? Why can’t I just appreciate that each person has unique strengths and weakness? Another person’s contributions and not necessarily better, just different.”

Jumping to Conclusions

An individual who “jumps to conclusions” will often make a negative interpretation or prediction, despite the lack of evidence to support their conclusion. This type of thinking is often applied when considering how others feel about you. It can present itself either as “mind reading” (when, without checking the facts, you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you) or as “fortune telling” (in which you assume the worst and treat it as fact).

Mental Filtering

Mental filtering occurs when you focus exclusively on the most negative and upsetting features of a situation, filtering out all of the most positive aspects. For example, despite receiving many positive comments about your presentation to a group of associates at work, you obsess about the one mildly critical comment for days, ignoring all the positive comments.

RICKMC 20150326 276429939_51da76025b_oEmotional Reasoning

In this cognitive distortion, you make feelings into facts. Making feelings facts involves taking one’s feelings as proof of the way things really are. For example, you think: “I feel like such a loser. Therefore, I must be hopeless.” Or, “I feel ashamed and bad. I must be bad.” “I feel inadequate. I must be inadequate.” “I feel worthless. I must be worthless.” The problem with emotional reasoning is that our emotions interact and correlate with our thinking process. Therefore, if your thoughts and beliefs are distorted, your emotions will reflect these distortions.

Christian Counseling to Identify and Challenge Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions, with all the extreme thinking they can involve, often mark the beginning of a negative loop that can send you spiraling further and further in depression and anxiety, until you feel that there is no way out. If you recognize any of these types of thoughts in yourself, do not panic. Working with a Christian counselor can provide a helpful context that can enable you to work through your cognitive distortions. As a Christian counselor who often works with individuals dealing with cognitive distortions, I would be happy to work with you to help challenge and change your thinking patterns.

“Did you forget to take your meds?” Richard Davis, (CC BY-ND 2.0); “Dear Diary,” courtesy of Ken Banks, Flickr CreativeCommons, (CC BY 2.0)