Blog Short #143: 2 Cognitive Distortions That Create Anxiety
Photo by SimCh, Courtesy of iStock Photo
Two cognitive distortions that create anxiety are referred to as the “binocular trick.” They are magnification and minimization. Using one end of the binocular, you see a greatly enlarged image of what you’re looking at. Looking through the other end, you see a minimized view of that same thing.
Both views distort the dimensions and shape of the original. One magnifies, and one minimizes.
The same happens when applied to your thoughts and feelings. For example, you might maximize your flaws and minimize your accomplishments.
Here’s an example:
Jeannie values her friendships and strives to be there for her friends when needed. She recently had to cancel an outing with one of them due to unforeseen circumstances, and even though her friend understood, Jeannie beat herself up with a litany of chastising thoughts about her failure as a friend. She began to think she was a lousy friend and might lose all her friends because of it. Even though the friend in question pointed out to Jeannie the numerous times she’s been available, Jeannie could only focus on the one miss and minimized her lengthy track record of being a good friend.
This is how these distortions are usually applied – the negatives are magnified, and the positives are minimized. But sometimes, the process is reversed. Here’s an example of that.
Your son often drives late at night after drinking with friends, and you shrug it off as “he’s just being a college kid.”
Here, minimization is used as a means of denial. This can be dangerous.
Sometimes it’s more subtle: You minimize the money you spend on credit cards each month and ignore your rising debt. Or you minimize the effects of arriving late to work every morning until you come in one day to get a pink slip.
Here’s one last example that represents catastrophic thinking.
Your husband doesn’t answer his phone while away from the house, and you fantasize with certainty that he’s been in an auto accident and is severely injured or dead. You know that he’s a good, defensive driver and has never been in an accident. Even so, you assume the worst and become highly anxious, frantically calling and texting.
In this example, there is the possibility that your fear could be realized, but it’s unlikely. You’re magnifying your worst-case scenario without considering any other explanation.
What to Do
You can try three things that have a calming effect and bring your thoughts closer in line with reality. Let’s go through them.
Examine the Evidence
Examining evidence is a standard procedure to use with all cognitive distortions. Here’s how to do it.
First, you have to be aware that you’re magnifying or minimizing. Magnifying is the more obvious of the two because of the type of emotions it brings on. Anxiety is usually prominent and can be felt on a scale from medium to panic, depending on your situation and perceptions about it. You might also feel fear, sadness, defeat, or anger. Because these emotions are intense and difficult to ignore, you’re acutely aware of them.
Minimization is a little harder to recognize because it can be automatic, especially if you’re in the habit of minimizing your assets, achievements, or strengths. This is also true if you’re using minimization to deny what you don’t want to see. It sneaks in the back door and becomes a chronic habit, and creates an underlying blanket of anxiety you’re not always aware of.
You have to be a little more vigilant to recognize and increase your awareness of minimization.
Now that you’ve recognized you may be magnifying or minimizing, question the validity. Compare what you’re thinking to the facts. What’s the evidence that your thoughts are correct or incorrect? Or, if there’s a kernel of truth, how much are you magnifying or minimizing?
In Jeannie’s case, she could quickly recount the times she’s spent with her friend against the times she’s canceled. She could also consider how her friends react to her and discover that no one’s shown any dissatisfaction with her behavior.
When people catastrophize, they get tunnel vision. They follow a single train of thought and screen out any possible variation or information to the contrary. It’s like a train in a tunnel increasing in speed, so nothing is visible except the point straight ahead.
Minimizing assets is more like lopping off the branches of a beautiful, flourishing tree so that all that remains is a battered trunk.
Used as denial, minimization is like flattening out a rocky mountain range to a bunch of small stones that don’t pose an obstacle. The problem is it’s a mirage – the mountain range is still there, but you don’t foresee the danger of falling and tumbling down.
In all cases, questioning your thoughts and comparing them to objective evidence will bring you back to a more reality-based place so you can adjust your emotions to reflect that.
2. Interpreting the Positive
Another technique explained by David Burns in his book Feeling Great is called “positive reframing.” I like this one because it doesn’t entail throwing out distorted thoughts but instead looking at the values they might hold.
Dr. Burns suggests you write down all of your magnified or minimized thoughts and then stand back and look deeper at them; what do they represent about you and your core values?
In Jeannie’s case, she values:
- Being a good friend
- Showing concern and empathy
- Being conscientiousness
- Following through with what you promise
- Making people feel good and loved
- Showing up
In the husband and wife scenario, the wife values:
- Love and attachment
- Protection of those she loves
In both cases, positive values are associated with distorted reactions to situations. Acknowledging those helps to curb the distortions because it frames the underlying qualities that lead you to care in the first place. You want to keep those qualities while simultaneously questioning your distorted thoughts and emotional reactions leading to anxiety.
Now for the last idea.
Watch the Repetition
Once you’ve gone through the process of challenging your thoughts and recognizing the underlying core values, you hopefully will be able to put those thoughts to bed. But sometimes, there are recurring thoughts that come up time and time again.
You don’t have to go through the entire routine each time if these thoughts are simply repetitions of the same old scenario. Instead, acknowledge and take note of them. Dr. Burns calls this “The Acceptance Paradox.”
Jeannie’s recurring thought, “I’m not a good enough friend,” surfaces often. Instead of managing this thought every time, she says, “Well, there it is again.” Then she lets it go for now until next time. By doing this repeatedly, you eventually dilute its power.
If the thought still makes you emotionally reactive and disturbs you, you may need to repeat the questioning process. Still, repetitive thoughts are always the same, and facing them without diving into them will fade them out after you’ve done the first several corrections. Either way, use what works best for the situation at hand.
Distorted thinking happens to everyone, even the most objective person. We perceive events through our own personal lens, which colors our conclusions. You can’t prevent that, but you can consistently work to widen your lens to see the bigger picture, and part of that is catching yourself when your thinking becomes distorted.
Exaggerated emotions almost always follow distorted thoughts, so working on one will help keep the other in check.
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,