April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Cognitive Distortions and Coping With the Unknown

One of the greatest challenges of this very trying time is managing our wise-mind. The wise-mind is a DBT skill (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Marsha Linehan) meant to call upon an individual’s emotional mind and rational mind combining and impacting decision making, reactions and overall mindsets.

Maintaining this balance when faced with fear and uncertainty can be difficult and people can enter “robot mode,” responding only with logic and not taking into account the emotional experience of self or others, or responding purely with the emotional mind, reacting based on feelings and not taking facts into account.

This is a time of questions without answers, but also of community, support and information that can help guide us with what is known for the here and now. I felt this would be an appropriate time to revisit some helpful tools based on cognitive distortions, or the ways people become stuck when responding without the wise mind. Cognitive distortions are based in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and allow us to explore the ways our brains respond to big emotions, by distorting our ability to remain calm.

These distortions can include all or nothing thinking (also known as black and white thinking), catastrophizing, “future-tripping,” overgeneralizations (using one experience and applying the conclusion to all experiences), “should” statements and magnifying or minimizing—among many others.

Some of these reactions are understandable; people try to make sense of a situation, especially an unknown situation, by piecing together situations from the past or identifying something as either good or bad, as this allows for simplicity during a complicated time. And yet, these distortions can also act as an obstacle, causing someone to become stuck, reactive, emotion-driven and even to freeze due to the overwhelming nature of ruminative thoughts. This is a time when this type of thinking is rampant among us and inside us; we are unclear on a situation, feeling anxious, frustrated and fearful, which can lead us to become stuck in our distortions. Below are some helpful questions—guided by CBT and CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy) to ask yourself when experiencing “stuckness” or feelings of being overwhelmed.

1. First and foremost, we are most connected to the wise-mind when we can use our brains to full capacity. Grounding oneself to be able to do so is important, otherwise the brain may be in a fight, flight or freeze mode and the questions below may feel too out of reach. Grounding oneself can include one of the various tools listed in previous pieces, including a mind-game stated out loud (like a multiplication table or reading off lyrics) deep breathing, using the fivesenses.

2. Then, ask yourself the following questions:

Is this thought helpful?

What would an objective individual say with regard to my response to this?

What would someone I respect say to this thought?

Does this thought stem from a reliable source?

Is there an alternative?

Is this a feeling or a fact/based in a feeling or a fact?

Writing down or speaking these answers out loud would be most recommended as this allows the prefrontal cortex to continue to be most effective. Exploring these questions works to challenge the distorted mindset and reflect on tolerating and accepting the unknown, which can feel incredibly difficult for people in general, especially at this time and specifically for those struggling with generalized anxiety or other anxiety disorders.

3. After reflecting on the nature of the distortion in step two begin to process and reframe using the questions below:

What is the alternative to this thought?

What percentage of this is based on a feeling?

What is the evidence for/against my thought?

4. The final step would be practicing mindfulness to the current situation by processing the questions below:

What can I do for myself right now, even if I know this is my reality?

How can I act non-judgmentally toward myself and others?

What would allow me to accept how I currently feel?

The integration of CBT and DBT to challenge and reframe distortions, as well as tolerating our current experience, will allow us to remain connected to our emotional experiences and validate how we feel while also remaining open to challenging our mindsets should we recognize the distortions that may be running the show.

I wish you physical and mental health at this time. Know that you are not alone.

Temimah Zucker, LCSW is the assistant clinical director of Monte Nido Manhattan and also works in private practice in Manhattan and will soon be seeing clients in Teaneck. To learn more about when or about virtual services Temimah currently offers, visit www.temimah.com  and email her at [email protected]. You can also follow her on Instagram: @temimahzuckerlcsw 

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