Cognitive distortions or biases are methods that our brains use to convince us that something is true, even though it might not be. We may exaggerate situations, thoughts or events to fall in line with our negative thinking. Many people that experience bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety will use cognitive biases and not even realise they are doing so.
The reason we want to stop using this representational thinking is that it can cause us to fall into a negative state of mind. If left unchecked it can cause further low mood and eventually depression. If we are already hypomanic, cognitive distortions can lead us to see only the good or positive sides and not the reality of a situation. We can make unwise choices and push ourselves to become even more hypomanic and for some this can lead to full mania.
By recognizing that we are using this unhelpful thinking we are able to change our thoughts and behaviour in the long run. This is a key part of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).
When you are considering which cognitive distortions you are using, understand that many of them will overlap so you could in fact be using several at the same time.
What are the most common cognitive distortions?
1. Black or White Thinking: When we are unable to see any middle ground. Someone is either good or bad. A situation is either perfect or a disaster. Example: A child is naughty today so therefore it feels like they are always naughty and never good. Or someone once brought me a gift therefore they are always generous.
(Also called splitting, polarised thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, dichotomous reasoning)
2. Deletions: When we focus on the negative and forget all the positive e.g. Focus on the one or two people at work who don’t like you instead of the 5 that do and therefore you feel like work is a negative place to be (Leads to further anxiety or ruminations). Also called disqualifying the positive or mental filtering.
3. Generalising: Based on one or two incidents you assume all will follow a similar pattern e.g. I’ve had bad experiences with car mechanics in the past therefore I see all mechanics as sharks and will do a bad job while also over charging me. (Leads to feelings of helplessness or anger.) Also called Overgeneralizing.
4. Jumping to Conclusions: You make interpretations when there is no real evidence. Includes ‘mindreading’ or assuming the thoughts of others. (Can lead to anger, anxiety, rumination.) e.g. Your partner is in a bad mood so you assume it’s because of something you’ve said or done.
5. Personalisations: You assume blame even if something is beyond your control (guilt, shame and inadequacy follow). For example your child gets bad marks at school and you think it’s because you didn’t help enough with homework.
The opposite of this is called Blaming, when you direct the entire cause of something onto someone else even though they may only have played a small part or didn’t do something intentionally.
6. Catastrophising or Magnification: When a minor negative occurrence turns into a major event. (can lead to Anger, sadness, depression, rumination) e.g. You’re running a little bit late for an appointment and because of that the whole day feels ruined.
7. Labelling: This is when we label ourselves based on a behaviour in specific situations. e.g. You call yourself stupid because you couldn’t grasp one point or because you made one mistake. (can lead to rumination, anger, low mood etc.)
8. Emotional Reasoning: Using our feelings instead of rational thinking as a guide e.g. My friend hasn’t called me for my birthday. I feel neglected therefore he doesn’t care about me. The reality may be that your friend has had a very busy day and it just slipped their mind.
9. Rigid Rule Keeping: A list of rules how yourself and others should or must behave. Often these rules are made up by what you expect from life whereas in reality there is no such rule. Leads to anxiety, anger, disappointment, rumination e.g. Thinking you must be talkative in social situations. Think everyone must be considerate. Shopkeepers must greet you with a smile. People shouldn’t breast feed their children in public. You must get approval from people. People shouldn’t play music in the park when others are having a picnic.
This is also called Should and Shouldn’ts, Must and Mustn’ts.
10. Always being right: When you go out of your way to prove that you are correct, sometimes prioritizing your own interests instead of being objective. This can often happen in political discussions where people feel they have to defend a viewpoint even though it may not be in the best interests of everyone or even true.
How do I improve my unhelpful thinking?
We use Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to lessen our excessive use of cognitive biases. This occurs in a multi-step process. It takes practice but the more you apply it the easier it gets.
Step 1. Identify when your thinking is not optimal.
If you experience a negative thought during the day write it down or think about it more carefully right way if you are able. This should allow you to identify which of the distortions you are using. More than one may occur at the same time so don’t worry too much if you’re not able to pinpoint it, the fact that you’ve realised you’re using one is fantastic and a great start.
For people with bipolar conditions it is useful to practice mindfulness as this helps us to stop and think about our thoughts more easily. Bringing ourselves to the present helps cut down on ruminating about a situation and allows for a more rational way forward.
Step 2. Take a few deep breaths and relax
This can help to clear your head and calm down a bit if you’re feeling wound up. Accept that you may not know all the facts and that probably things are not as bad as they may seem right now. Consider that most likely in a few hours, days or weeks you probably won’t even think about this issue any more so it’s not worth wasting your precious energy on it. Almost any thought or situation can be resolved quickly if the right corrective action is taken soon after it occurs.
Step 3. Examine the evidence
It can be difficult to look at a situation objectively, specially when we are feeling emotional about it. Here are some methods we can use to examine the evidence more clearly.
- Always ask yourself whether a particular thought is a fact or just an opinion.
- Ask yourself whether something is always true or just sometimes true.
- Try to think of all the possible reasons something may have happened or why you’re thinking in a certain way.
- Put yourself in another person’s shoes and look at it from their point of view. Why do you think they may have said what they have or acted in a certain way?
- Be objective, kind, open minded and understanding towards both yourself and to others when considering the truth.
- Think whether your thoughts are serving only yourself or if they take others’ needs into consideration also.
- Ask yourself what a wise and understanding person would think or do in a given situation
Step 4. Bring your thoughts back to the present
It’s important to let go of your intrusive thought so that you don’t keep dwelling on it, this will lessen low moods and anxiety and keep you from slipping into a depressive state. Once you have examined a thought, bring your focus back to your present task and try to move on. Again, we use our mindfulness exercises to achieve this. It will take practice so be patient and kind to yourself.
For the next week try to identify any negative thoughts and cognitive biases you may encounter and use the 4 steps to think about them more carefully. Keep asking whether each one is the truth or an opinion.
This is an ongoing exercise so try to keep on identifying and examining each time you find yourself using any cognitive distortions.