Cognitive effects can distort the way you think, increase anxiousness, and lead to numerous other difficulties. However, they are usually thought patterns viewing reality in an inaccurate and, typically, negative way.

An example might be thinking “I am the unluckiest person on the planet”. As a result of this sort of thinking, or when experiencing any other cognitive effect, you are more likely to see things in a more negative way.

In this post, we will look at what cognitive effects are. We will then look at 6 cognitive events that distort the way you think and introduce some coping mechanisms and methods to help you stay in control.

What are cognitive effects?

They are sometimes called ‘cognitive distortions’ and relate to patterns of thinking that are twisted in some way. Studies show that cognitive effects can be used as a coping mechanism for dealing with adverse events in people’s lives.

They are usually distorted through a negative lens and cause habitual errors of thought with some studies finding an increased vulnerability to depression in people suffering from cognitive distortions.

As such, whilst they can be beneficial in terms of dealing with the immediate effects of stress, in the long run, they can cause issues for our mental health if they shape the way we think.

6 cognitive effects that distort the way you think

According to Beck, Rush, Shaw, and Emery (1979), there are 6 types of cognitive effects that distort how you think:

  1. Overgeneralization
  2. Catastrophisation
  3. Personalization
  4. Predicting with insufficient evidence
  5. Self-reference
  6. Dichotomous or black-and-white thinking

Now, let’s talk about each in more detail.

1. Overgeneralization

This refers to taking a thought that is plausible in certain contexts and assuming it is always generalizable to other contexts, similar or otherwise. This is a common cognitive effect experienced by people after public speaking.

Other examples could be thinking it is always/never good to take risks, or always being optimistic/pessimistic is good, or linked with things like the Dunning Kruger effect, etc. Overgeneralizing in this way can cause you to see things in only one way and lead to repeated behaviors that may not be healthy.

2. Catastrophisation

This relates to always expecting the worst thing possible is likely to happen. Examples could include thinking “I will never find someone if my partner leaves me” or “I will be a failure in life if I don’t pass this test/get this job”.

Everyone will have had similar thoughts to these at some time. However, if it dominates your thinking, it can lead to depression. As such, it is important to try and notice these thoughts if they arise so we can deal with them healthily.

Some of the ways to recognize and deal with it when you have anxiety caused by catastrophic thinking are outlined below.

3. Personalization

Whenever we blame ourselves for something that is not our fault, we are experiencing the cognitive effect of personalization.

Equally, personalization can involve being the imagined cause of an external event, such as thinking “because I didn’t have an alcoholic drink, everyone else had a worse time”. It has been linked to anxiety disorders. In extreme cases, this can lead to people taking everything personally.

4. Predicting with insufficient evidence

Sometimes called temporal causality. This refers to the belief that, because something bad happened in a situation once, it will necessarily happen in the same or similar situation in the future.

However, it premised on insufficient evidence. This could be failing at a test and assuming you are bad at that subject. However, you could sit the same test again and succeed for various different reasons.

5. Self-reference

The effect of this cognitive distortion is to believe that your own actions are the center of everybody else’s attention. This is a common feeling that almost everyone experiences. It is often linked to self-assessment of bad performance at something.

Equally, we might experience it when we enter a situation and are unsure where to go or what to do. We can feel like everyone notices our internal emotions sees our bad performance. If we experience this in the extreme, it can prevent us from taking action to avoid this sensation.

6. Dichotomous thinking

This sometimes called ‘polarized thinking’ or ‘black and white thinking’. This cognitive effect refers to always expecting an extremely positive or negative result.

For example, if we think we are destined to always be a success at everything, or that we will inevitably fail no matter what we do, we are experiencing the cognitive effect of dichotomous thinking. Because these extremes are unrealistic, this can lead to issues arising when this concept of reality is broken.

How to cope with cognitive distortions?

These are only 6 types of cognitive effects that can distort how we think about the world around us. However, there are many more. The important thing to be aware of is that we can manage these distortions and correct their effect on our actions over time.

You can try the following steps to achieve this:

Step 1 – Identify the thought

The first thing to do to achieve this is to identify the thought itself. Is the thought you have noticed causing you to feel more anxious or worsening your mood in another way?

Step 2 – Identify the cognitive effect/distortion

Try to think of which cognitive effect you are experiencing. Are you overgeneralizing or thinking dichotomously? Understanding this can help you see how it is shaping your analysis.

Step 3 – Reframe the debate

Consider how you can reframe your original analysis. What other evidence is there that might challenge your original thought?

Step 4 – Consider CBT

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can give you guidance to change how cognitive effects are distorting your thinking. Research has shown the positive effects of this technique and there are numerous techniques you can use that will calm your anxious mind.

Lottie Miles, M.A.

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