Cognitive Distortions: What Are the Traps of Thinking and How Not to Fall Into Them

While making decisions or completing some tasks, we think we do everything ourselves, and nothing affects us. In fact, it’s wrong, and we face cognitive distractions in all situations. Here is how they work.

What Cognitive Distortions Are

Cognitive distortions are thinking patterns that help the brain process information faster. But fast doesn’t mean good, which is why cognitive distortions are often called thinking traps.

Many thinking patterns are evolutionary and firmly rooted in our lives.

Imagine walking home down a poorly lit street. The road home in the evening can seem dangerous, even if you live in a quiet neighborhood and have no reason to worry. Every rustle automatically becomes a potential threat, and you instinctively speed up your step even though your life is not in danger. This is due to anxiety and fear, which send danger signals to your brain. Another thing is to walk down the same street on a sunny summer day. It will seem safe during daylight hours, and again for no objective reason.

Such biases are cognitive distortions. The brain simplifies incoming information, reducing it to the opposite categories of « dangerous » or « all good. » Giving them up to see other, more objective interpretations is difficult because these simplified thinking patterns helped our ancestors survive. When they spent the night in the woods, they needed to pay attention to rustles and extraneous noises – their lives depended on it. The world is much safer now, but the thinking mechanisms remain the same.

What the Most Common Pitfalls of Thinking Are

Besides simplifications, common cognitive distortions include hasty conclusions, when we interpret events in a certain way, considering only one option and ignoring the rest.

Cognitive traps are common at the beginning of a relationship-which is why the person you’re in love with seems perfect at first.

Many people also tend to distort reality and think for others – this cognitive trap is called mind-reading. For example, you make a mistake while placing bets at the 22Bet mobile application. No one would pay attention to it, but you will persist in thinking that those who are also into it are laughing behind your back.

Another trap of thinking, with which almost everyone is familiar – catastrophizing. It provokes the emergence of obsessive thoughts about serious illness, arising from an unimportant pain in the side. Many parents are prone to catastrophizing. If a child gets a « D » at school, they panic, thinking that their child is doing worse than other children, that he will not be successful and will not be able to get along in life. This is accompanied by selective attention (because until now the child could study with only A’s) and self-criticism (« I’m a bad mother, it’s all because of me! »).

Exaggerated standards are another kind of mindset trap. We set rules and behave a certain way in order to succeed, and if we don’t get what we want, we start blaming ourselves for it. The attitude of « I should be better than everyone else » is replaced by the attitude of « I’m a failure, and I won’t succeed.

Everyone has cognitive distortions, that’s how the brain works.

Some are more susceptible to them due to factors such as genetics, physiology, life experiences, personal beliefs, and the environment in which the person grew up. Cognitive attitudes can also be shaped by one’s mentality: for example, American individualism is a fertile ground for the tendency to attribute success to one’s abilities and failure to external circumstances.

How Not to Fall Into the Traps of Thinking

Cognitive distortions are harmless and do not affect quality of life. Nevertheless, there are situations in which cognitive traps can significantly distort reality and play a cruel joke. This often happens in relationships when, instead of talking to our partner, we expect him or her to understand why we resent him or her. But that doesn’t happen because people can’t read minds. Because of the false belief that the partner should figure it out for himself, the relationship can change for the worse.

Or here is another example. The girl is sad because he spends Friday night alone. Pondering why she does not have a partner, she falls into the trap of jumping to conclusions: the girl begins to feel that she is a loser. The hasty conclusions are joined by catastrophizing, and now the girl is sure that she will always be alone.

Negative thoughts caused by cognitive distortions can at least ruin the evening. In the worst case, they risk becoming a cause for the development of symptoms of depression.

If you feel that cognitive distortions are ruining your life, see a therapist. In such cases, cognitive-behavioral therapy or medication can help. There is no universal method for dealing with trapped thinking, as it is not considered a disease or deviation from the norm.

You can work with cognitive traps on your own. You can’t get rid of thought traps forever, but you can teach your brain cognitive flexibility – that is, to look at a situation realistically without allowing cognitive distortions to drive you into a corner.

How to Do It

Trace the thoughts triggered by your thought patterns. Your task is to convince yourself that these thoughts are not the truth or established fact, but only one possible explanation for the situation.

Try to determine what factors influenced the emergence of this attitude. For example, in the situation with the lonely girl, the reason for the negative thoughts was the empty apartment.

Think of several possible interpretations of the events. Ask yourself: « What else could be true? » This will be a good practice. In the situation with the girl, you can concentrate on the pluses: she can spend the whole evening doing what she wants. But in the situation of the child who got an F, events need to be interpreted from a different angle. A certificate with A’s doesn’t give you a ticket to a successful life. And marks are not always put for knowledge – the child could just not sleep well, be late or quarrel with the teacher.