What to do about Cognitive Distortions

I don’t usually like the “WHY” question in therapy. I realize it can be helpful but most of the time when it comes to why we’re feeling a certain way it’s not very helpful. At least not at first. When people learn more about themselves, where they feel things in their bodies (e.g., happy, mad, sad, scared), it starts to be more helpful. Most of us have done a very good job of compartmentalizing what we feel in our bodies to what is happening in our head. We think that somehow the brain and the body aren’t very connected. In reality, the brain and the body are very connected. For example, when your heart starts beating fast, your breathing will be faster. Once you notice this, you can slow down your breathing which will slow down your heart rate. 

Until people can get a better understanding of what the sensations in their bodies are trying to tell them, the WHY question is very confusing for them. In therapy, I often hear, “I’m depressed and I just don’t know WHY.” Or “I’m anxious for no reason at all and I can’t figure out WHY.” Those type of WHY questions are the ones that can get people’s thoughts spinning out of control. I even find when I ask most kids or teens WHY questions about their behavior, they usually don’t have great answers, and often answer with “I don’t know.”

Now, I’m not saying we just remove WHY from our language altogether, that would be absurd. But I am saying it isn’t really that helpful in therapy and maybe not so helpful as you continue to work through your 21-Day Journaling Challenge. Because when we ask the WHY question and there is seemingly no good or logical explanation it often puts us in a really negative headspace. 

This month, I have been talking through thinking errors, or cognitive distortions, and how these automatic thoughts can cause your brain to spiral-sometimes out of control and cause you to feel anxious, depressed or overwhelmed. For this post, I want to give you some tips and questions that I think are way more helpful in figuring out what is happening and reasons your body may be reacting so strongly to a thought or an event. 

What is happening? 

One of the foundational skills of mindfulness is to notice what is happening in your body or notice your thoughts. Initially this is a very uncomfortable feeling for most people because we try very hard to make a bodily sensation go away without really paying attention to what it is trying to tell us. I remember when I first began to pay attention to what I was feeling in my body, and be comfortable with the uncomfortable, I noticed the body sensations gave me a lot of information about how I was processing the world. For example, when I feel anxious, I usually feel it in my chest. But when I started paying closer attention to this sensation, I noticed when I’m about ready to push through a boundary or someone is trying to push through a boundary I have set. The sensation between a boundary being broken and feeling anxious is very subtle but it helps me figure out what to do next.

The other reason I think it’s so important to observe what is happening, is that if the same thing keeps happening over and over again, it’s probably something you should pay attention to. I often work with people who are have relationship difficulties, and I hear things like, “They get so mad at me when I don’t keep up on the housework but I’m so busy with work, it’s hard to keep up with everything. But they’re not a bad person.” Or “I don’t want to paint them in a bad light because they’re not a bad person, they just like things a certain way.”  When people are too dismissive of these situations, they’re minimizing the other person’s behavior and it can be one of the major reasons someone is in counseling. Their significant other may be very dismissive of their feelings thus the cycle of not feeling good enough, feeling like they have to try harder, or they are not communicating effectively, continues to keep them stuck. The reality may be that their significant other needs to help out more, have more realistic expectations or needs to take responsibility for their part in the situation. When people dismiss these feelings too quickly, they may miss the reasons that they’re having such a strong reaction to a situation and something needs to change. 

Why do these feelings feel like facts?

This may seem like the most obvious one, but I think sometimes we think the way we feel is get hung up on the way we feel and decide that feelings are accurate. In reality, feelings give us information about the world around us. Once we can discern what the feelings are trying to tell us, we know what to do next. Using the example above, once I realize that a boundary is being pushed, I know that I either need to re-evaluate the boundary or hold firm.

What would you tell a friend?

This technique is a great way to get out of your own head. I have clients that use this technique when journaling, just so they can get more perspective on a situation. Since they already know the situation, they pretend they are a friend giving them advice on how to handle it. This usually gives more insight and can be helpful in identifying next steps.

Will this matter in 1 week, 1 month, 1 year?

One of the examples I like to use to illustrate this point is this: visualize your life as a lake, and every day, is one drop into the lake. How will this one event or circumstance compare to all of the other drops that have been put into the lake or that will be put into the lake? When we are able to step outside of our current circumstances like this, it helps to give us perspective on the importance of this event. Also figuring out how significant something may be in 1 month or a year also helps. If you have lived long enough, which most of you reading this have, you realize that there really are significant events that have a great impact on you such as the death of a loved one, moving, chronic illness, cancer, etc. And these events will impact you 5 years from now. But there are many events in between that are not as significant such as a disagreement with a child or significant other. I like to spend my mental energy on the things that are most significant, not the temporary ones. 

I hope this explanation of how to deal with your cognitive distortions will help you understand your negative thoughts and rewire your brain. If you need more help understanding the HSP trait, please feel free to contact me at 317.496.0456 or email I’d be happy to hear what is happening and help you find the right fit for counseling. If you are looking for help with depression, anxiety, trauma or behavioral concerns, you can read more about how I can help at my website

Let's Talk

Click below to fill out our online intake form. Our intake coordinator will be with you shortly.

Scroll to Top