Challenging Cognitive Distortions: Avoid Thinking Traps

Written by: Janine Mack – B Sc (Psychology)

Last updated date : July 24, 2022

All of us have certain ways of thinking. Our thoughts enable us to form understandings of what is around us and influence how we see the world. It’s not unusual that among all the thinking patterns we have there are some which aren’t the most helpful or healthy. Over our lifetimes, many of us develop faulty thinking processes that often cause more harm than good. This article explores the area of cognitive distortions, which is one such example. Also known as thinking traps, a range of them exist and bring difficulties to people’s lives. Challenging these cognitive distortions is of the highest importance: if unaddressed, these can continue to create hardships and lead to adverse consequences. Becoming aware of how to manage them and practicing this can help to avoid thinking traps and move towards healthier thought patterns.

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All of us have certain ways of thinking. Our thoughts enable us to form understandings of what is around us and influence how we see the world. It’s not unusual that among all the thinking patterns we have there are some which aren’t the most helpful or healthy. Over our lifetimes, many of us develop faulty thinking processes that often cause more harm than good. This article explores the area of cognitive distortions, which is one such example. Also known as thinking traps, a range of them exist and bring difficulties to people’s lives. Challenging these cognitive distortions is of the highest importance: if unaddressed, these can continue to create hardships and lead to adverse consequences. Becoming aware of how to manage them and practicing this can help to avoid thinking traps and move towards healthier thought patterns.

Chapter 1:
Cognitive Distortions: What They Are and Why It’s Important to Overcome Them

Simply put, these are thinking patterns that alter or ‘distort’ how people see reality. They are usually inaccurate, exaggerated, and irrational. Often these thoughts are negatively biased as well. 

It’s easy to understand how this can cause problems in people’s lives. If they have inaccurate perceptions of their reality, then this will affect how they see things. The issues this causes can impact various aspects of their lives. Areas such as their mental health, work, various relationships can suffer as a result. Another reason why challenging these cognitive distortions is essential is because the more they’re engaged in, the harder they are to move away from. They can become deep-seated and then it’s more challenging to avoid these thinking traps.

Types of thinking traps

One of the first steps in challenging cognitive distortions is gaining awareness. One of the first areas to become aware of is just how many thinking traps exist and the nature of each one. This is a quick summary of some of them:

1. All or nothing/ black or white thinking – With this thinking trap people see things in opposites. They find it hard to settle on middle ground and see the ‘grey’ areas or think in less extreme ways.

2. Overgeneralisation – When people think that one experience is the norm or standard and that others will be just like it.

3. Personalisation/ internalisationBelieving that things are linked to you when in reality they’re not. For instance, thinking that others are referring to you if they’re talking about someone. Or thinking you’re the one to blame when something happens.

4. Blaming/ externalisation – Shifting the responsibility for something related to you onto someone else. It could be about how you feel, think, or behave, or it can be about an incident that happened. They blame another person.

5. Catastrophising – This can be anticipating the worst or blowing things out of proportion.

6. Jumping to conclusions – Forming opinions without having proper evidence to do so, just based on assumptions and feelings.

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Chapter 2:
Thinking Traps: The Way to Overcome Them

Addressing such thinking errors takes time and effort. Challenging our cognitive distortions isn’t an easy process but it’s possible to overcome them. There are some reasons why thinking traps can have a hold on people. One reason is that sometimes people become so used to thinking or reacting in a certain way that it becomes automatic and they’re not aware of it until it happens. Another is that they may not know how to change these thoughts and don’t feel strong enough to do so. Therefore, this way of thinking is allowed to happen and impact people. The strategies below aim to tackle these in a way that is feasible even to someone new to all of this.

Although the following are self-help methods, they can be still challenging for some to implement and follow. This is understandable: bringing about change has its own difficulties. In cases like this if you are in a position to seek professional help, do so. The assistance and guidance can make a big difference and help you on your journey. Whatever you decide to do to manage and avoid thinking traps, don’t give up, just keep at it even if you don’t always succeed. The practice will pay off and you will have better experience handling these thoughts.

Cognitive reframing

The main way of addressing thinking traps and as well as other unhelpful thoughts are changing their nature. This is a technique that is also part of cognitive behavioural therapy. By doing this you’re able to make a thought that once was unhealthy and maladaptive into a healthier, more positive alternative. It gives you a different perspective which can be a better representation of reality. This can help you create a better mindset.

The are some key steps in carrying out this process.

1. Become aware and pay attention to your thoughts

The first step in trying to correct your thoughts is spotting the ones that need correcting. A lot of us are sometimes unaware of our automatic thoughts and can end up being influenced by them. Paying attention to the thoughts that enter your mind allows you to notice thinking traps and work to avoid them. At first, it can be difficult to identify the types of negative thoughts you have. In this case, making yourself more aware of the various thinking traps that exist for example can help you figure out what you relate to and know what to look out for. Pay attention for example to things like the nature of your thoughts and how they sound, whether there are facts to support the thought or not.

To help you with this better you can note down your thoughts when you have them. Whenever you feel a thought that could be something you need to look out for, just make a note of it. This can also put you in a better position to judge the nature of the thought, which is the next step.

2. Examine and evaluate them

Don’t hesitate to examine the thoughts that come up in your mind before you allow them to continue being there. Keep in mind that sometimes we engage in certain thinking patterns not because it’s appropriate for the situation, but because it’s just what we’re used to. Look for whether the thought sounds rational or if it sounds over the top and exaggerated. This can help identify thinking traps. Thoughts like this could sound like “Everyone hates me!”, “I’m never going to be happy”.

3. Question and rationalise the thoughts

Once you’ve noticed such thoughts, try to figure out why they are problematic. It’s not unusual for this to be hard at first: sometimes when we’re used to thinking in certain ways we won’t always see what’s wrong with it. If it’s proving to be a challenge you can ask those you trust to help you. Reason out with the thoughts you’re having. Asking questions such as if it’s true and why we think so and if there’s evidence to back up what you’re thinking can help. This questioning can for example point out to you aspects of the thought that are faulty.

4. Replace them with an alternative

Finally, after being aware of distorted thinking and catching such thoughts when they enter the mind, they can be replaced with an alternative. The alternative would be a more rational or neutral version of the thought. Taking the examples mentioned earlier, this will sound like “I don’t know for sure that everyone hates me: I don’t have sufficient evidence to support that statement. I cannot assume this” and “I cannot predict the future so why am I thinking that I’ll never be happy?”. Correcting your thoughts in ways such as this can help avoid some of the consequences of thinking traps.

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Chapter 3:
Final Note

Challenging your cognitive distortions requires sufficient amounts of self-awareness and persistence. Many individuals opt for the help of a therapist trained in cognitive behavioural therapy. Becoming more aware of what irrational and rational thoughts sound like can help in distinguishing between the two. Additionally, learning how to observe your thoughts without letting them affect you and building the mind space to help you is also beneficial. Practices like mindfulness can help you with this. It is a tool often incorporated in therapeutic practice as well. One of the main goals of cognitive reframing is to help notice when our thoughts are not reflective of reality and to then correct it so that our thoughts aren’t distorted and don’t affect how we see things. Making sure to work on the errors in our thinking and practicing how to alter it not only allows us to manage this better but also helps improve our lives.

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Learn evidence-based scientific ways of coping with chronic fatigue

99 Lessons

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  • Educational Content
  • Quizzes
  • Self-reflection material
  • Suggestions & feedback
  • Worksheet, tips & tools to use

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