What are cognitive distortions and why it is important to recognize them
Our state of wellbeing or psychological discomfort, including what characterizes the pathological disorders, is greatly influenced by the way in which, through our knowledge, we interpret what surrounds and happens to us.
Many people have the impression or is convinced that at the base of their problems there is a causal and direct link with what happens to them in life.
That in some way a reaction necessarily follows a stimulus, and that this is inevitable, even when it is problematic, such as fleeing when facing a situation that frightens us and we think may be dangerous.
In reality, this is not the way human mind works, and this explains why in the face of the same event, or more events, people react in ways that are also very distant from one another.
As discovered by the founding fathers of modern cognitive psychology Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, our emotional reactions are not necessarily related to what we live, but rather represent the result of what we think, about what we are experiencing.
In other words, our emotional reactions are conditioned by personal beliefs through which we observe and evaluate the reality that surrounds us.
Rarely an event or external situation affects our emotional reactions by itself. The same event is followed by different emotional and behavioral consequences, different from person to person, and also in the same person depending on the moment.
Between the events and our reactions is in fact the action of filtering of our thoughts.
In other words our interpretation of the facts, which depends on many factors, of course linked to our individual and familiar history.
If, for example, a person we meet does not greet us, this could be interpreted in very different ways depending on whether you read it as an index of distraction, of disinterest or even worse of hostility towards you.
No need to say that the consequences on our emotional state will respond to the particular interpretation taken for good.
So the same event can be emotionally experienced as neutral or insignificant, troublesome, or even unacceptable and cause of psychic suffering.
Our state of wellbeing or psychological discomfort, including what characterizes the psychopathology, is therefore greatly influenced by the way in which, through our knowledge, we interpret what surrounds and happens to us.
Our way of thinking, is in turn not only determined by our individual history, and therefore characteristic for each individual, but also responds to organizational principles and laws of mental functioning common to all human beings.
We’re just made like that!
In the face of an event we must be able to make predictions and draw conclusions, sometimes in a fast and economic way.
It would not be advantageous or adaptive to browse a huge amount of data stored in our cognitive system.
The interpretation from the events therefore makes use of shortcuts (or heuristics) guided by principles of simplification, economic, but also emotional.
We all use heuristics in reasoning, in decision making, in judgement.
These heuristics can be useful from a practical point of view, for example speed up our daily decisions, but can become dysfunctional mechanisms implicated in the genesis and maintenance of a psychological disorder.
When it becomes a cognitive distortion?
We can talk about real cognitive distortions when the use of these natural modes of interpretation of reality becomes rigid and pervasive.
For example, if whenever we take the look of a passerby as a sign of a negative judgement. When we evaluate the possibility that a fear will come true on the basis of the confirmation of little data, when we see the facts within two possible categories only, white and black.
Why is it important to recognize and modify them?
Learning how to become “experts” in your own way of working is a great advantage and represents a very important part of the and highly appreciated psychotherapy work in cognitive therapy.
What patients like and what reassures in therapy is in fact the collaborative and pragmatic style of cognitivisti therapists, whether we talk about pattern-based therapy, standard therapy, behavioral, and third-generation therapies.
The person is instructed to use instruments of observation and discovery of its functioning, including the recognition of cognitive distortions inherent in its inferences, present and past.
Together with the psychotherapist the pacients investigate in depth levels their “internal dialogue” in order to find the distortions that intervene to influence the way in which the person lives some situations.
The goal is to re-learn, or re-write new forms of thought, to resolve the suffering and resume to live more fully.