Thought Distortions: Are you calling me crazy?

Thought distortions are beliefs we hold which are not supported by evidence – in fact, most are contradicted by evidence – and usually /are more negative than is helpful or accurate. Everybody has distortions, and no, that doesn’t mean you’re crazy (You might be, but having some thought distortions doesn’t prove it). In fact, thought distortions have an important evolutionary purpose.


As we discussed in the mindfulness blog post, in prehistory, humans existed under constant existential threat. A brain structure called the amygdala intentionally frightens us to get our attention to quickly activate the flight or fight response so that we can protect ourselves from danger. While that facilitated the continued existence of the human species, that brain structure is the same today, and does the same thing, but in modern life, the “threats” we experience are not life and death. Also we don’t use a physical response – either actually running or fighting – to most threats.


The amygdala-generated negative thoughts, which cause us to go around stressed, anxious, and/or unhappy are distorted in one or more of the following ways that may be familiar to you:


  • · Catastrophic Thinking: Expectation of the worst possible outcome – worst case scenario

  • · Discounting the positive: Confirmation bias in which only negative information gets attention

  • · Mind reading: Believing that people are thinking specific negative things, when often they aren’t thinking anything at all, or aren’t judging us in the way we think, and being overly concerned with what other people think of us

  • · “Shoulding”: Overly focused on perceived deficits in what one ought to be doing, making it hard to ever be at peace -- the paradox being that nobody could do all of those things,

  • · Personalizing: Believing that negative things happen to you because you have some characteristic that either deserves or attracts negative events

  • · Overgeneralizing: Belief that a negative experience is proof that everything is negative.

  • · Emotional reasoning: Belief that because you feel bad, or bad about yourself, that the emotion must be true. Such as, “I feel stupid” meaning you are stupid.

  • · Fortune telling: Thinking you can predict all the negative things that might happen, contradicting the reality that most of the things we worry about don’t happen, making most worry unproductive.


As a result of thought distortions, we waste time and energy with unproductive worry. Distortions can make us feel less capable than we are, causing us to not attempt things, or making us discouraged and causing us to give up too early. They make us feel sad, anxious, robbing us of the enjoyment of life, and even can make us sick by depleting our physical and emotional resources and preventing us from enjoying ourselves. They can even impair expression and experience of love.


Just like a fish would have trouble describing what water is like, It's hard to "see" or own thought distortions because we live in them every day, and they become a part of our general frame of reference - the way we perceive the wold our relationships, and ourselves. But just because it's hard doesn't mean we cnt learn to do it on our own, or with the aid of a skilled therapist.


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