Instant CBT: The Simplest Way to Challenge Negative Thoughts

A few short phrases can help people disconfirm irrational beliefs or fears.

Posted Oct 25, 2018

VGstockstudio/Shutterstock
Source: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

Much has been written about cognitive distortions—those fixed, inaccurate patterns of thinking that can cause so much unhappiness. A quick Google search turns up dozens of articles that list any number of distortions—as few as five, or as many as 50Catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, and overgeneralization are among the most frequently cited. But as any student of CBT will tell you, it’s difficult to make an exhaustive list of cognitive distortions, because they tend to overlap. After all, isn’t catastrophizing really just another form of jumping to conclusions—and don’t both of these distortions reflect unnecessary magnification?

Let’s try an example, to see what fits. Imagine a shy, anxious teenager who’s uncomfortable around other people and thinks to himself, “If I go to the high school dance, people will laugh at me, and I’ll be humiliated, and then I’ll be afraid to show my face in school again.” He is, in effect, thinking with his emotions: He’s anxious about social interaction, and this anxiety leads him to believe that people will laugh at him (emotional reasoning). In turn, he concludes that this laughter will leave him completely humiliated (catastrophizing, jumping to conclusions, magnification). His fears about the dance are also black and white, and he is filtering out all the positive outcomes—in that he anticipates that the experience will be “all bad” with no potential for anything good. But given that all of these likely inaccurate thoughts and ill-supported conclusions arise from his feelings of anxiety, the dominant distortion here seems to be emotional reasoning. Perhaps, in truth, this is really the most significant cognitive distortion: the way people derive false conclusions from feelings, rather than facts.

With all of this cognitive noise arising from one’s emotions, what can be done to sort through them and seek rationality? When it’s this easy to fall into thought patterns that sabotage our good intentions and undercut our confidence, is there really a simple way out? Not really—there's nothing simple about challenging one’s own thought process, again and again. It's never easy to question a long-held approach to reality (even if that approach has become deeply self-defeating). But in the name of straightforwardness, it could be said that a good deal of cognitive-behavioral therapy can be boiled down to two clear mental steps, two statements you can make to yourself: “No it isn’t,” and “It doesn’t matter.”

Let’s slow down for a moment. Cognitive-behavioral treatment is often about gaining enough internal distance from one’s thought processes to challenge distorted thoughts from within. With CBT, one can learn to interpose a rational, intentional thought between an emotion and an impulsive, self-defeating reaction. In learning to do this, one develops the habit of testing the validity of one’s own thoughts or challenging the significance of the negative outcomes one fears. 

Back to the shortcuts. Take our shy teenage friend, again, who’s been ruminating about attending the high school dance (that is, if high schools still have dances, about which I’m suddenly not certain). If he can take a step back from his worries, he might be able to challenge his irrational beliefs with clear, truthful statements that reflect real evidence. Is everyone at the dance really going to laugh at him? Is this expectation accurate? “No it isn’t,” he might think to himself, challenging that conclusion. “When I go to a school event, even if I've been uncomfortable, no one has ever really laughed at me... and as a matter of fact, I’m usually not the center of attention like I’ve been imagining.” If this teenager is thoughtful about testing the truth value of his irrational belief—and there are plenty of online worksheets that can help him say "No, it isn’t"—he can probably generate quite a few truth-based statements to disconfirm it. 

FreeStockPhotos / CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication
Source: FreeStockPhotos / CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

Alternately, perhaps this student would do better to challenge the validity of his fears, instead of the likelihood of being laughed at. Perhaps he recognizes that he probably won’t be laughed at, out loud, but still believes going to the dance would make him feel conspicuous and ashamed of himself. He might be able to challenge these expectations for humiliation by saying to himself, “It doesn’t matter”—by coming up with true, accurate assessments of the likelihood that the dance will lead to constant, daily feelings of shame. He might tell himself that school dances have always made him feel self-conscious, and that he doesn’t usually enjoy himself there, but that this hasn’t really stopped him from making good friends, or from enjoying himself in other contexts. He might remind himself that he’s had embarrassing social experiences in the past, but that somehow he continues to go to school, which still hasn’t become a source of chronic shame. He might even remind himself that high school isn’t forever—that in a few months he’ll be able to move on to college, where the social environment will be different. With broad, rational self-assurances like these, this teenage boy might be able to challenge the notion that the embarrassment he might feel will be anywhere close to as bad as he expects, or will have any kind of lasting consequences. Reminding himself that it doesn’t matter can help our teenager recognize that sometimes embarrassing or uncomfortable experiences do take place, but they are rarely as consequential as we fear

In the end, we are all subject to cognitive distortions, probably on a daily basis. Our brains are engineered to value emotion-driven input just as much as clear, cold logic. Finding the wherewithal to challenge your own thoughts, every once in a while, is a valuable exercise for almost everyone—even if CBT isn’t your preferred therapeutic modality. Judiciously telling yourself that your beliefs are not rational (with “No, it isn’t”) or that they won’t lead to the outcomes you fear (“It doesn’t matter”) can function as a clear, direct step toward regaining your peace of mind.