By Amber Russell, Youth First, Inc.

Our brains are powerful things! They are wired to alert us to danger, to think, to learn new things, to retain memories, and to find solutions to problems we face every day.

There may be times you want to question the message your brain is sending you. Over time you may have developed some faulty connections called cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions are biased perspectives we take on about ourselves and the world around us. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.

There are many types of cognitive distortions. Here are some of the common ones:

• Mind Reading – Assuming you know what people are thinking without having evidence or proof of their thoughts: “He thinks I am unqualified.”

• Catastrophizing – Believing what might happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it: “If I make a bad grade I will never get into college.”

• Negative Filter and/or Discounting Positives – Focusing almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom noticing the positives. When you do notice a positive about yourself or others you discount it as if it does not matter.

• Overgeneralizing – Perceiving the likelihood of a negative outcome based on a past single incident: “He is never on time.”

• Polarized Thinking – Viewing events or people in all or nothing terms: “We have to be perfect or we are failures.”

• Personalizing – Attributing most of the blame on you when negative events happen, and failing to see that some situations can’t be avoided or that others could be equally responsible: “It was my fault my group got a bad grade.”

• Blaming – Focusing on others as the source of your negative feelings or problems and failing to take responsibility. “My teacher hates me, which is why I am failing her class.”

Now that you know what some of these cognitive distortions look like, here are some things you can do to control them:

• Identify your possible cognitive distortions – Create a list of troublesome thoughts to examine and match up with a list of cognitive distortions. Determine which thought processes you tend to lean toward.

• Examine the evidence – Examine experiences that could be the basis of your distorted thinking. Try to identify other situations where you had success or proved the thought is not true. For example, if I am thinking, “Billy is always late,” I would examine the thought and likely think of at least one time Billy was on time.

• Evaluate in a different way – Instead of thinking in an “all or nothing” way, try to gauge the situation on a scale of 1-10. When something does not go right, evaluate it as a partial success. Focus on what did go right and perhaps rate it as a 6 out of10.

• Define terms – Define terms to examine what they mean. Examining global labels will help you see a specific behavior associated with the label and not a person as a whole. If you think you always fail, then define the term failure. Think about what actions made you think you were a failure and if the definition truly fits you as a person.

• Survey a trusted friend – When in doubt, ask. If you think you might be blowing something out of proportion, check with a trusted friend to see if they think your feelings are justified.

The more you get used to controlling cognitive distortions, the less faulty connections you’ll have to worry about. Take control of your powerful brain and use it for good!

This column is written by Amber Russell, LCSW, school social worker for Youth First, Inc., a local nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families. Youth First provides 57 Master’s level social workers to 78 schools in 10 Indiana counties. Over 38,500 youth and families per year have access to Youth First’s school social work and afterschool programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success.

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