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Alcohol and Mental Health

Cognitive Distortions: What Are They?

July 11, 2023
8 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 11, 2023
8 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 11, 2023
8 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 11, 2023
8 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 11, 2023
8 min read

Have you ever walked into a room to find people laughing and felt convinced they must have been talking about you? Or missed a meeting at work and just “knew” you would get fired the next day?

These are a few examples of so-called cognitive distortions, irrational thought patterns that warp your perception of reality.

How Do Cognitive Distortions Develop?

The roots of cognitive distortions lie in our past. They can emerge from past experiences, emotions, or deeply-held beliefs, arising when your brain tries to make sense of complex situations by oversimplifying them. For instance, when stress hits, you might reach for a drink, and your brain concludes, "Ah, alcohol equals stress relief!" Over time, this pattern can create some unwanted habits.

The Usual Suspects

We can fall prey to many, many cognitive distortions; here are just a few:

  • All-or-nothing thinking. All-or-nothing thinking is the mind's version of a high-contrast photo filter, viewing everything in stark black or white with no shades in between. This cognitive distortion paints a world of extremes, where everything is either perfect or disastrous, with no room for the subtle nuances in between.
  • In the context of cutting back on alcohol, all-or-nothing thinking might sound something like, "If I can't completely abstain from drinking, I might as well not try at all."
  • Overgeneralization. Overgeneralization is the mind's tendency to inflate a single event into a never-ending pattern of defeat based on one single outcome. It’s the cognitive equivalent of thinking that because it rained once during your vacation, every vacation you ever take will be a disaster. Or you might think that because you've slipped up and had a drink once, you're doomed to forever fail at sobriety.
  • The danger with overgeneralization is that it can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy. If you continually tell yourself you're going to fail, your motivation to keep trying can wane. It can fuel feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and depression, which might even intensify the urge to drink as a way of coping.
  • Mental filter. The mental filter is the tendency to focus exclusively on the negative aspects of a situation, filtering out any positive ones until they become almost invisible. Picture it like wearing glasses that only allow you to see the flaws, turning everything else blurry.
  • When you're working to reduce your alcohol consumption, a mental filter might have you focusing solely on the times you slipped up, while completely ignoring all the times you successfully abstained or moderated your drinking. This can leave you feeling hopeless and take a toll on your motivation, self-esteem, and overall mental health, making the goal of reducing alcohol intake seem even more challenging than it already is.
  • Catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is your brain moonlighting as a doomsday prophet, predicting the worst possible outcome in any situation. For those striving to reduce alcohol consumption, catastrophizing might look like this: "I had a drink today, so I'm definitely going to lose control, mess up everything in my life, and let everyone down."
  • Discounting the positive. Discounting the positive is your mind's pesky habit of shrugging off positive experiences as if they're insignificant or don't count.
  • For someone working on reducing their alcohol consumption, discounting the positive might sound like: "Sure, I abstained from drinking at the party, but that doesn't mean anything. It was just one time."
  • Should statements. Should statements involve dictating what we or others should or shouldn't do, setting up rigid rules for behavior. It's your brain playing judge and jury, declaring how things ought to be.
  • For someone reducing alcohol consumption, this might sound like, "I should be able to quit drinking instantly," or "I shouldn't struggle with this."
  • Jumping to conclusions: Mind Reading and Fortune Telling. Ever caught yourself assuming you know what others are thinking about you? Well, welcome to the imaginary psychic club of mind reading! It's our brain's little trick of believing it can decode other people's thoughts and intentions without any real evidence. For example, if you're reducing alcohol intake, you might think, "Everyone at the party will judge me if I'm not drinking."
  • Similar to mind reading, fortune telling is another misguided psychic act, in which we convince ourselves that we can predict the future, usually for the worse. For example, "I know I’ll fail at being sober at the social event tomorrow."

Now for the ripple effect: these distortions can contribute to stress, anxiety, depression, and — yes — that tricky relationship with alcohol. They can reinforce negative thinking and unhealthy behaviors, like reaching for the bottle when life gets tough. But there's hope! We can change this pattern.

Tackling Cognitive Distortions

The first step to managing cognitive distortions is identifying them. Pay attention to your internal chatter. Is it overreacting? Focusing only on negatives? The moment you can spot these distortions, you're on your way to managing them better.

Unfortunately, we can’t just wave a wand and banish our cognitive distortions. But we can use effective strategies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to challenge irrational thoughts and promote healthier behaviors. CBT can help us rewrite the narrative, challenge irrational thoughts, and ultimately promote healthier behaviors (yes, healthier drinking habits too!).

Here are some practical steps to help you dispel these distortions:

  • Understand your distortions. Start a thought diary. Write down any irrational thoughts and identify which cognitive distortion they fall under.
  • Question your thoughts. Is the thought accurate? What's the evidence for it? Could there be another explanation?
  • Accept imperfections. Mistakes happen. Instead of beating yourself up, use these moments to learn and grow.
  • Seek support. You don't have to do this alone. Reach out to professionals or support groups to help manage cognitive distortions.
  • Self-care is key. Healthy habits (including good sleep, balanced nutrition, and regular exercise) can help manage stress and keep your mind in top shape.
  • Patience is a virtue. Changing thought patterns takes time. Keep at it ! And celebrate small victories along the way.

In the end, cognitive distortions are just brain glitches, not defining character traits. Once you learn to spot and manage them, you'll be on your way to a happier, healthier, and sober you.

If you're on a mission to change your relationship with alcohol, understanding these mental quirks might be just the ticket you need. Let's kick back, get comfortable, and ready ourselves for a brainy escapade!

Ready To Unpack Those Distortions and Change Your Life?

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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