What is cognitive distortion?
Our brains are constantly building connections, forming relationships between our experiences, thoughts, actions and consequences. It’s this ongoing process that shapes each person’s view of the world – and affects everything from our reactions to daily problem-solving.
But sometimes, our brains build cause-and-effect relationships based on overly simplistic, coincidental, or simply incorrect associations.
These biased thought patterns – known as cognitive distortions – usually aren’t grounded in reality and tend to skew negative, says Alissa Jerud, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology.
One common way people distort their worldview is by catastrophising. Here’s what experts want you to know about this cognitive distortion, including how to overcome this type of thinking.
What are the different kinds of cognitive distortion?
We all experience irrational thoughts now and again. Yet reinforcing negative thought patterns alters our sense of wellbeing for the worse.
Psychologist Aaron Beck first proposed this theory of cognitive distortion in 1976. His student David Burns, now a psychiatrist and adjunct clinical professor emeritus at Stanford University School of Medicine, continued Beck’s work by cataloguing how our brains tend to manufacture faulty connections.
“None of them is one-size-fits-all,” explains therapist Erica Cramer, but according to Burns’ research, some common ways we cognitively distort our view of the world include:
- filtering, magnifying, and dwelling on negative details
- black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking
- overgeneralisation, like thinking that something “always” or “never” happens
- jumping to conclusions, mind reading and predictive fortune-telling
- emotional reasoning, or coming to conclusions based on your feelings alone
- thinking in terms of “should,” “must,” or “ought to” statements
- holding yourself personally responsible (or blaming others) for things out of your control
What is catastrophising?
“[Catastrophising] is when you think the worst-case scenario is the most likely scenario,” Cramer says. “Rather than there being an equal chance of something going right or wrong, you assume you are destined to experience a negative outcome.”
This line of thinking generally starts with information that has a kernel of truth to it, says Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio.
But when someone has a catastrophic thought pattern, their imagination takes an otherwise small concern and unravels it to the nth degree – the worst place it can go.
Dr Saltz says to imagine a dark and gloomy day.
“You look outside, and you think: There’s a thundershower coming; my child’s on her way home from school. It’s probably going to suddenly hit, then she may get struck by lightning and killed, and I will never be able to survive myself because I’ll be in mourning,” she explains. “That would be catastrophising.”