How to Screen Thoughts for Sharper Reasoning

Reasoning's Roadblock: Cognitive Distortions

Have you ever stressed about something for weeks or months. Then, the time came and it wasn't really that bad?

This is just one example of a cognitive distortion. 

Cognitive distortions are thoughts framed by a narrow perspective that ignore other possibilities and realities. Imagine if the weeks or months that you spent worrying were spent doing something productive? 

Distortions are automatic responses that result in stress, worry, and unsatisfying outcomes. Continuing my last post, "Gain Solid Reasoning with These Evidence-Based Terms," we will explore three more cognitive distortions.  

4) Catastrophizing

What is it? Assuming the worst will happen. 

For example, I dreaded attending an event at the end of my week. Throughout each day, I cringed at the thought of going. When the day came, I stopped to ask myself, "why the apprehension?" I had 100 scenarios of why I shouldn't go. 

Why it distorts: When faced with a possible threat our brain enters fight or flight response mode, the brain's quickest defense system. Lower level brain functions overpower higher level reasoning to power the body to safety.

When I allowed my fears to control my thoughts about the event, my lower level brain functioning was driving me to bail. But, if I pause for a moment and assess my options, I remember the open-bar, appetizers, and maybe that any awkward moment will just be another good story to tell.

Tackling new experiences seem to go smoother when you are open to the possibility of failure. 

5) Shoulding Yourself

What is it? Beating yourself up with unreasonably high expectations. We overlook advantages of our current position with self-imposed rules that push us to continuously want more.  

For example, I constantly tell myself I should be making healthier meals. 

Why it Distorts: You want to jump from your current routine to this "super platinum" self routine. You set yourself up for failure when attempting to change yourself so drastically. 

Most likely, you are already doing good in your life. Build on it. 

I already make fairly healthy meals, but I won't turn myself into this "perfectly nutritious" chef over night. But, how about this week, I start with an additional serving of fresh veggies and cut half the dairy?

I cannot know where I will be in the future. But, I can start by altering a little something, now. Assessing your current state can launch you into present thinking and help you realistically frame what can be done to make a change and feel at ease. 

6) Personalization

What is it? Taking responsibility for  peoples' feelings and failures. Carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, we think we should be the one to save the situation.

For example, parents tend to take responsibility for their children's actions. Many times we feel that we are in charge of people's happiness. We think, if we would have been there, they would not have failed. I personally tend to think it is my job to help everyone. 

A friend of mine always calls me for advice, but never takes it which infuriates me. 

Why it Distorts: We try to control things that are out of our reach.

We think we can control others' thoughts and actions, but we can only guide them or offer support.

It took a long time to figure out my friend was never going to take my advice. She just wanted someone to talk to. Ultimately, others are responsible for themselves and their roles. You have to take control of what you can. Know you can give your opinion, but you have to be content with the fact that it may not be executed. 

What to do?

Cognitive Distortions take time and practice to overcome. To react with higher level reasoning, meditation can train the brain to relax and focus.

This week: Notice when you partake in any of the three distortions mentioned earlier. With the awareness, pause, counter the distortion, and create new possible outcomes. 


Cara Jacobsen is the Director of Clinical Operations for DataDog Health developing Mindset, a biomedical app that manages and measures physiology and mental state toward personalized stress regulation. She has a Masters degree in Social Work (MSW) from St. Louis University.