Last week I wrote about “common negative thought distortions” and how they can contribute to anxiety and depression.
Cognitive distortions are just what they sound like — ways of thinking that distort reality. They’re subtle, usually subconscious untruths we tell ourselves about the world, ourselves, and other people. They’re messages that help us reconcile our fears with our environments. And though they are distorted, these thoughts may feel so real that we can’t control them with our conscious minds. That’s why mindfulness based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is useful for challenging cognitive distortions.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions usually function as defense mechanisms that protect us from some perceived danger. At one time, we may have been victimized or suffered real consequences from such dangers. So cognitive distortions might have served a useful purpose once by protecting us in some way.
For most of us, though, these thinking patterns have long outlived their usefulness. By the time we learn what they are, cognitive distortions have usually become hindrances — sometimes big ones.
Cognitive distortions become damaging when they limit our ability to do anything we need to do or wish we could do. Many instances of driving anxiety, as well as other anxiety issues and phobias, can be traced to distorted thinking.
One common example of a thought distortion is a pattern called “fortune telling.” This is the tendency to believe we can predict all the terrible things we feel sure will happen when we do something — like go for a job interview, take an exam, or get behind the wheel of a car.
We feel certain we’re going to be in an car accident. We’re convinced that other drivers are not going to stay on their side of the road. We have no confidence at all in our ability to handle the challenges of the road.
These thoughts keep us rooted in fear and unable to drive.
But the truth is, we can’t predict the future. Just because something happened once doesn’t mean it will happen again. Even if it happened twice, it might never happen again. Every time you flip a coin, there’s a fifty-fifty chance it will be heads—even if it was tails 99 times in a row.
On an intellectual level, we know this. We can observe that most people, statistically speaking, don’t get in car wrecks every time they drive. We can see that the majority of driving experiences for the majority of people have happy endings.
But knowing something and feeling it are not the same. Fear happens in a part of the brain that’s beyond rational thought. That’s why the thoughts remain distorted in spite of evidence to the contrary.
The fear-based part of our mind needs patient attention. It needs gentle encouragement and reinforcement, much like a child learning a new skill. In essence, it needs to learn new thoughts to replace the old ones that are no longer serving us.
Using Mindfulness Based CBT Helps Us Challenge Cognitive Distortions
Many people have found relief through mindfulness. Because cognitive distortions can literally cause physical fear responses, mindfulness based CBT practices can reduce these symptoms and in turn help the brain become more receptive to new thoughts.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a powerful method of learning healthier, reality-based thought patterns. Together, mindfulness training and CBT can be very helpful in challenging cognitive distortions around driving anxiety.