Twisted thinking: using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to change your mind

Twisted thinking: using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to change your mind

 by Ben Bruce

We are not passive recipients of events, the universe is interactive so let’s be careful about what we bring to the table.

Imagine a golf game – some people tee off and hit the ball with a tremendous slice or a hook in their drive (the ball goes off to the right or off to the left of the fairway). Is this the ball’s fault or the fairway’s fault or is it the stance, position and swinging action of the golfer? This is similar to a cognitive (mental interpretation) bias – we are all spin doctors and put unhelpful or helpful spin on what happens to us: people, places, things, times, events, contexts and situations. Learn to be aware of what spin you put on things. This alone will change how you interact with events and thus how they affect you. You can also learn to directly challenge these biases.

Read over the following list of distortions / twisted thought patterns and acknowledge which ones apply to you. Then take an active part in your thinking life: become aware when you engage in such thinking styles, step back, assess and dispute. Learn to think in a more pro-active, balanced and realistic way. Rest assured that this applies to ALL OF US. Then use the following 'CBT thought worksheet' to dispute twisted conclusions in further detail.

Remember: Better thinking = better life.

1.       Jumping to conclusions: when evidence is lacking or even contradictory

2.       Catastrophizing : assuming the worst. You focus so much on this catastrophe; it’s as if it has already happened when it may in fact never happen.

3.       Extremes: Exaggerating or minimizing a situation; blowing things out of proportion or shrinking their importance inappropriately.

4.       Filtering: Disregarding important aspects of a situation. Not seeing things in their proper perspective; not seeing mitigating or contributing factors, e.g. ‘it’s all my fault’.

5.       Oversimplifying and rigid polarized thinking – things as good-bad/ smart-stupid/ black white

6.       Overgeneralizing: from a single incident a negative event is seen as a never-ending pattern.

7.       Mind reading: assuming you know what people are thinking about you when there is no definite evidence. A self fulfilling prophecy occurs if you start to act awkwardly; people may start to notice you when you stand out. It’s important to check or give benefit of the doubt.

8.       Emotional reasoning: you have a feeling and assume this is how things are. If you feel a certain way then you must be a certain way. The truth is, whilst they’re important to acknowledge and talk through, feelings are very fickle, come and go and change all the time.

9.       Shoulds: You put a lot of pressure on yourself and may feel guilty. ‘Shoulds’ refer to things you’ve not done but think you ought to have done (or vice versa). This leads to procrastination and self doubt. Rather, choose whether you will do something about it or not, and accept what has already happened in the past because you simply cannot change it now. Simple, but true.

10.   Personalization: taking things personally; when other people have problems you think it is your fault or about you. Sometimes you have contributed to a situation and sometimes you haven’t, but it is hardly ever all about you. Remember the butterfly effect.

11.   Cynical/ pessimistic bias: focusing on the negatives and ignoring the positives; putting a negative spin on your life narrative (story) and ignoring your strengths, supports, hopes and dreams. Sometimes this is about martyrdom: attracting attention for the wrong reasons. Underlying core hurts (self worth and inadequacy, powerlessness and feeling unloved) can be at the core.

12.   Resentment: holding on to issues/events from the past; connected and compounded into a chain leaving you bitter and cynical. What does forgiveness mean to you? What if it meant unburdening yourself from the weight of resentment? If someone has hurt or wronged you, why should the impact of their wrongdoing continue to hurt you? Whilst not condoning, we need to make a conscious choice to forgive and this is more about letting ourselves off the hook, healing, coming to terms and getting on with our lives.


CBT Thought Worksheet: when you are concerned by thoughts or feelings that you are having fill in the following thought worksheet to make better sense of things. Observe and engage with your thinking rather than just letting it hijack your sense of calm:

  • What am I feeling?_________________________________________________________


  • Is there a thought behind this feeling (or vice versa is there a feeling behind the thought)?


  • Is there any truth behind this thought? __________________________________________


  • How do I know for sure?______________________________________________________
  • Why don’t I know for sure?____________________________________________________
  • Is there a twisted thought pattern that I have previously identified (refer to twisted thoughts sheet)?___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  • What else could be the case?__________________________________________________
  • Substitute the old way of thinking for something more reassuring:


-          (e.g. with panic attacks) I’m going to be okay

  • -           This is just panic – due to hyperventilation and hypocapnic changes that will go away when I relax(low co2 and o2)
  • -          I have been through difficult times before and got through it; I will get through it again.

-          How big is this, really, in the grand scheme of things/ the bigger perspective?

-          We learn through experiences and mistakes

-          I’m doing fine.

-          People do not notice half as much as I would think. They have their own lives and problems

Worry: If you are worrying about something you will often benefit from confronting it. Go through the worst case scenario of the thing that you are worrying about, imagine it, and then think about what you would do if that happened. There might be several possible outcomes. You might also like to talk to your counsellor about it if there are more complex underlying issues involved. Then ask yourself ‘what can I do now to reassure myself or protect myself in advance?’ Then take reasonable steps to do it. For example, if you are worried about getting sick and overweight, then take a vitamin pill, drink a glass of water, and go for a brisk walk or a run. In this way you are doing something active and preventative and constructive, rather than just unhelpful and unproductive worrying which gets you nowhere.


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