Cognitive Distortions and The Power of Thought

A thought can be a powerful thing. When an individual is faced with a traumatic event, thoughts can get jumbled and confused. In therapy, we call this a cognitive distortion. We use these distortions as a protective factor. Maybe we do this to confirm our beliefs, good or bad. Maybe it saves us from perceived failure. Going through a traumatic experience can make us more susceptible to these mental traps. Let’s highlight a few of the common distortions and look at ways we can shift our thinking in a more positive direction.


All or Nothing Thinking

This is when we think of things in absolutes. We are either perfect, or a complete failure. There is no middle ground. The truth is, no one is perfect, and no one is a complete failure. We all fall somewhere in the middle. The quicker we can come to this realization, the better. One means of defeating this distortion is to truly examine the thought. Because you fail a test, does it make you a failure in every aspect of your life? The short (and true) answer, is no. We all have strengths and weaknesses and we all have the capacity to improve. Think of things on a scale. Rather than good or bad, think of events on a continuum. Look at what you can learn from bad situations. See a perceived “failure” as an opportunity for growth.


Mental Filter

Negativity is an unfortunate reality we live with as human beings. Unfortunately, sometimes we spend more of our precious time focusing on negative things and disregarding the positive. An example of this might be, getting a B on an exam in a class that you are not great in. Rather than celebrate your marked improvement, you focus on the fact that you got a grade that was less than you hoped for. Negative events can have such power, but these events only have the power we give them. If we make a conscious effort to seek out the positive in the negative, we’ll be better off. Write down a negative thought you have, then challenge yourself to come up with two positive thoughts to counteract the negative one. For example...


Negative Thought: "I got a B on my chemistry exam. That’s not good enough. I wanted an A!"

Positive Thought: "I got a B on my chemistry exam. Usually I get Cs or Ds, so I’m improving."

Positive Thought: "Using flashcards to study seemed to be helpful. I should do that again for the next exam."


Jumping to Conclusions

Everyone has done this. This isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. We all make assumptions about a variety of situations. When a friend says they will call us, and our phone never rings, we might jump to the conclusion that he or she is mad at us, but the reality might be something very different. Maybe he or she simply forgot or had an emergent situation to attend to. We simply can’t make it a habit to go to the worst case scenario. When you feel yourself falling into this trap, make a list of possible scenarios to keep your mind off the worst possible scenario that we often fixate on. Then ask yourself, what good does thinking of the worst case scenario do for me?



At times, we attribute labels to each other and to ourselves. We’ve called ourselves, “terrible”, “a failure”, “a jerk”, “stupid” etc. This sort of internal judgment is certainly harmful. If you find yourself having this internal dialogue, ask yourself, “I wouldn’t be so mean and harsh to my friends or family, why would I be so mean to myself?”


Personalization and Blame

The feeling of guilt is common among trauma survivors. Thoughts of what we should or shouldn’t have done keeps us lingering the in past and out of the present. As guilt grows, so do levels of sadness and anger. When someone is abused, it is not that individual’s fault. It's the fault of the abuser. That offender made a choice and a very negative one. Choices and control were taken from the survivor and guilt restricts the feelings of control you have over your life. A large part of healing from trauma is about getting that control back. Understanding that you aren’t at fault is no easy feat to accomplish. It takes time and work but it can be done. Seeking support from a mental health professional can be beneficial. Sometimes a different perspective from a neutral person can make a big difference. Surround yourself with supportive individuals who understand that it isn’t a survivor's fault they were abused and people who believe in you and your own strength to heal.


Sometimes the best way to analyze yourself is to view it from the outside. If we think about the person or persons we care most about in our life, and we recognized them using some of these distortions, what would be say to them? How would we help them? Now take that advice you would give and give it to yourself. Changing how we think from a negative to a positive outlook can seem like a daunting task. Like any habit, negative thinking can be problematic, become routine, and impact our lives in countless ways. If we can identify when we use these cognitive distortions and make a concerted effort to address them, we can begin to take the first steps into a more positive mindset.


For a great resource on these and other cognitive distortions, and skills to overcome them click here.


-Alex Brace

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