A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern that creates a false sense of reality that can lead to unnecessary life distress. For example, when we make “mountains out of molehills” the implication is that we are interpreting a relatively minor life stressor as a catastrophic event. By reacting like this, we tax our minds and bodies with increased anxiety, and possibly harmful coping responses that include displaced aggression, depression, and drinking/drug usage.
As the pandemic drags on, it’s easy to fall into unhealthy ways of thinking that include cognitive distortions. In response to this danger, I thought it might be helpful to provide a few thoughts and ideas relating to improving critical thinking and minimizing cognitive distortions.
All or nothing thinking
Dichotimized (all-or-nothing) thinking is a cognitive distortion that looks at life in black and white categories with no grey area between. People are either smart or dumb; successful or unsuccessful; good or bad; beautiful or ugly. Contemporary targets for all or nothing thinking include political ideologies, where it has become quite normal to demonize and discredit views opposite to your own.
In reality, life is more nuanced, and rarely do issues, events, problems, and people result in absolute outcomes. While some schools may be under-performing, it’s a cognitive distortion to apply that way of thinking to all schools. Similarly, some politicians may be corrupt, but it would be quite the stretch to assume all politicians are crooked. While it is easy to fall into the trap of making absolute judgements, we are far better served to substitute all or nothing thinking with critical thinking in order to weigh evidence and make objective evaluations.
Other cognitive distortions
All or nothing thinking is not the only cognitive distortion human beings experience, as there are at least a dozen more that psychologists have identified that can lead to similar developmental problems. In each example, it is our human, subjective mental processing that “sets the table” for the actions that follow. These are frustrating times for sure, but it is important to weigh those moments of pessimism against evidence that illustrates our collective human resiliency, the incredibly talented health care workers fighting for our safety, and the governors working around the clock to keep things safe in their respective states. Right now, more than ever, we need to refrain from cognitive distortions like overgeneralizing, jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, and blaming.
Tips to help
The longer this pandemic extends, the greater chance that you will experience stress, frustration, and yes — cognitive distortions. Simply knowing you are at greater risk for skewed thinking is a big first step, but there are additional things you can do to help during these trying times:
- Seek credible news outlets. Where and how you gather your news and information has a direct impact on the information you will need to process, so make it a priority to seek truth over sensationalism.
- Listen closely, even if your emotions begin to ramp up. While it’s easy to quickly shut down news that you don’t want to hear, a more effective strategy is to calmly gather facts, think through various outcomes, and choose the course of action that makes the most sense.
- Rather than blame, problem solve instead. You only have so much energy each day, so make it a point to direct it toward problem-solving rather than finger pointing. How can I cope during this crisis? What things do I need to do to stay safe and secure? Who else can I help right now?
- Remember, life happens in the grey areas. Rather than immediately taking an absolute position, try and understand the other side of an argument —- as well as all the “grey area” between your position and the opposing view.
These are challenging times for sure, and how we cope with the stress of the pandemic will ultimately determine how quickly and successfully we return to normal. Pay attention to how you perceive and respond to news, and take note of any of the cognitive distortions you might regularly use when processing new information. Listen to credible authority figures, objectively process information the information you receive, and use your daily energy to problem solve instead of blame.