When we are anxious we tend to process information differently. We tend to develop a certain bias towards situations and events we find stressful or anxiety provoking, and this basic mechanism is so automatic we can’t really see it for what it is. Therapists will often spend time pointing out so-called cognitive errors in an attempt help people see things in a more balanced fashion. In this post I’m outlining eight common cognitive errors. By far the most important of these is catastrophizing or catastrophic thinking.
Catastrophizing is about things growing out of all proportion. Typically something like a small error or a mistake will be seen as having devastating consequences.
Filtering, sometimes called selective abstraction, is about disregarding evidence to the contrary. It’s about only seeing the bad but not the good, or highlighting personal weaknesses but not strengths.
Labelling is a form of over-simplistic thinking in which events that have occurred to your disadvantage are viewed as a mirror of personal inadequacies. For example, when missing out on a promotion, the label you apply to yourself might be ‘because I’m useless’. This ‘explanation’ is no more than pointlessly beating yourself over the head with words. The fact that the job went to someone who was more senior, possibly better qualified and more suited, is information overlooked.
Overgeneralizing is about reading too much into situations. The fact you forgot something when shopping turns into proof you are a bad mother. You buy a present that is too big and it becomes evidence how useless you are at everything you try to do.
Mind reading is more of an issue in people who are socially anxious. You firmly believe you know what other people are thinking about you. You actually ‘know’ they are thinking bad thoughts. Of course the reality of the situation is you can’t possibly read the mind of another person. You are interpreting – and your thoughts are your own.
Black and white thinking is also common with low moods and depression. It’s a way of seeing things as all good or all bad. If something isn’t wonderful it must be terrible. The really unhelpful thing about black and white thinking is that very few things measure up to the ‘wonderful’ category, so quite a lot of time is spent thinking things are awful.
Fortune telling is that aspect of thinking where we imagine what might happen and then we respond emotionally as if it actually has happened.
Discounting the positive is certainly one way to hold on to anxious thinking. Ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit with our view of the world and ourselves is a feature. If you believe people don’t like you and you don’t fit in, you’ll find it easy to discount situations where people around you are including you. For example, it may very well cross your mind that the only reason they are talking to you is because they feel sorry for you. The idea they find you pleasant, interesting, a good listener, or have other positive qualities will be dismissed.