IF I’M NOT FIRST, I MIGHT AS WELL BE LAST
NOTHING GOOD EVER HAPPENS TO ME
SHE IGNORED ME BECAUSE SHE DOESN’T LIKE ME
I’M NEVER GOING TO FIND LOVE
These are the kinds of thoughts that keep us feeling anxious. On some days they are the quiet background music to an otherwise healthy and productive day. On other days they define us and are all we can think about. But these types of thoughts are actually emotionally driven lies about who we are and the world around us.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT) they are called cognitive distortions, a type of negative automatic thought that stem from our history and shape our anxiety. If you’ve ever had any of these types of thoughts you aren’t alone. Over 40 million Americans are thought to have anxiety every year and only about 37% of people ever seek treatment. A CBT therapist will help you learn how to identify your cognitive distortions to better understand what types of automatic thoughts lead to anxiety and what your go-to fears are.
How Cognitive Distortions Work
Cognitive distortions shape our anxiety even though we don’t even know we are having them. Often times people just feel the anxiety because the feeling is so strong it quickly overrides the thought. But when you feel anxious, cognitive distortions are the thoughts that lead to the anxious feeling. They stem from core beliefs we have about ourselves and the subconscious cultural and familial experiences we internalized while growing up. Learning to identify and challenge cognitive distortions can calm anxious thoughts quickly.
If I’m not first, I might as well be last: All or nothing thinking
When we give ourselves two choices on opposite ends of the spectrum. Things are great or awful. I’m either the best or a failure. If I’m going to be a priest, then I better be the Pope.
Nothing good ever happens to me: Mental Filtering/Disqualifying the Positive
When we ignore all of the positive things that have actually happened and focus on one negative aspect of our lives and let that define us. For instance, a person may lose their job. Instead of seeing a balanced view of all of the times they have been successful and also failed, they allow this negative moment to reinforce the idea that their life has been mostly failures.
She ignored me because she doesn’t like me: Mind reading/Personalization
This thought is made of two cognitive distortions. First, we mind read when we assume we know what someone else is thinking. Then we personalize when we assume what they are thinking or doing has anything to do with us.
I’m never going to find love: Catastrophizing
When we believe all is lost because something didn’t go according to plan. For instance, imagine you and your partner disagree on something important. After finding out about this difference you start thinking about how you aren’t sure if they will make a good parent or if you can ever trust them, even though they are still the same person you’ve known for years.
How Therapists Work With Cognitive Distortions
Being able to recognize and challenge cognitive distortions is a tool that takes time to build and it’s only one way Cognitive Behavioral Therapy addresses anxiety. In therapy, once a client is familiar with the negative thoughts they have and can write them down as they happen, I introduce a thought record. Using the thought record, the client and I point out what cognitive distortions are present. Over time, the client sees that there are usually only a few that come up regularly. We work together to challenge these distortions. As challenging cognitive distortions becomes natural and as these types of thoughts lose power and decrease in frequency, feelings of anxiety naturally diminish.