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Expert view: thinking errors

Shirley Reynolds, Director of the Charlie Waller at the University of Reading describes the common thinking errors that are addressed within CBT.
In CBT, one of the things we talk about quite a lot are the errors and mistakes we make when we’re thinking. The reason we make errors when we think is because the world is full of unclear information. When we walk around, everything we see we have to make some sense of. And a lot of the information that comes to us is not clear. It’s ambiguous and we have to figure it out. Because we have to figure it out, there’s usually more than one way we could think about it. So when we’re depressed and anxious, we have a tendency to make more cognitive errors. And they’re the kind of things that can make us feel worse.
There are a number of different types of thinking errors that we make. So most of us make them some of the time. So for example, I do my driving test. I fail my driving test. I think I fail in everything I do. Everything I do, I’m useless at. That would be a good example of all or nothing thinking. Instead of thinking oh, I failed my driving test– still lots of people do fail their driving test– I’ll probably pass next time, I immediately think I’m useless. I’m terrible. I fail everything. So another kind of thinking error is around prediction. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. We have to figure it out.
I’m about to do my driving test. I say to myself, I’m bound to fail. I’m going to fail. I’m going to be useless. This is going to be awful. Now, I don’t actually know I will fail. But because I’ve predicted all of that, it’s much more likely that I will. Mind reading is another kind of error that we sometimes make because we can’t see what’s happening in people’s heads. We have to imagine what’s going on there. So imagine I failed my test, and I think when I tell my husband, he’s going to think I am a complete idiot. I tell him and I look at what he’s thinking. He says oh, never mind. You’ll pass next time.
But I know he’s really thinking she’s a complete idiot. I’m mind reading. Another kind of cognitive error is discounting the positives. This is when we see maybe one or two negative features and we ignore everything else in the picture that’s positive. So let’s go back to the driving test again. My husband says to me so, it’s a shame you failed. But what did you fail on and I show him the list that tells you what I passed on and what I failed on. Actually, he says you’ve only failed on one thing actually. Everything else is fine. But to me, all I can see is the negative. So none of the positive things I do matter to me at all.
I’m only focusing on the bad thing that happened. I’m discounting the positive. Catastrophising is another kind of thinking error. Again, some of us do it some of the time . Imagine that I have failed my driving test. The worst thing has happened. I think that is the worst thing that could ever happen. I’ll never be able to pass. I won’t be able to get a job. I won’t be able to see my friends. This is awful. So sometimes we call catastrophising awfulising.

We’ve just explored how thinking errors (or cognitive distortions) can often result in a negative vicious cycle or ‘loop’. This makes the low mood or anxiety worse and worse until it spirals out of control; affecting feelings and bodily sensations, dictating behaviour and extreme negative thinking. But what do these errors actually look like?

Watch this video clip where Professor Shirley Reynolds talks about some of the more common thinking errors that people with anxiety and depression might make. Make a note of these and what they look like.

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Understanding Anxiety, Depression and CBT

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