First, what are cognitive distortions?
Cognitive distortions are negative and unhealthy thought patterns that are based on your interpretations or perceptions of something rather than facts or reality
Let's look at some examples
Black and white thinking
This one is VERY common with runners. This is either/or, right vs wrong, perfection vs failure, only opposites exist and there is no middle, thinking. This type of thinking is binary, where there are only two groups or two sides, with nothing in between. Everything has to fit nicely into once side or the other.
Why this is unhelpful: Most of the time, there are no absolutes and things are not binary. There is a middle and it is healthier to live in the middle because it leads to less extremes in emotions and provides more room to have SOME DEGREE of positive emotions vs no positive feelings at all. It also allows us to CHANGE how we feel and think vs being stuck in really rigid thinking patterns. Change helps us grow and become our best selves, but rigid thinking interferes with that.
Black and white thinking examples
Either I need to do the full work out OR it's not worth doing so I will skip it
Minimalist shoes are the only right shoe for runners
Heel striking is bad
If I take a walking break, then it doesn't count
Either I am a real runner or I am not
My ideas about running are right and all other ideas are wrong
I have to do a 20-mile run for it to be real marathon training
If it don't hit x pace, then I am slow
Emotions = facts
Our emotions are real and true. They need to be acknowledged and validated. Unfortunately, we get into trouble when we misinterpret emotions as facts.
Why this is unhelpful: Emotional reasoning makes it hard for people to take a step back from their emotions about a situation and look at the facts. This includes the facts about WHY they are feeling the way they feel. Facts allow us to see the truth about a situation, allowing us to evaluate it more effectively and then make decisions based off of the facts vs only what our emotions are telling us. Again, we need to acknowledge our emotions and understand why we are experiencing them, but they represent our interpretation of an event rather than the event as an objective thing. For example, anxiety tends to lead us to interpret the world with fear and worry, where we then choose to flea or fight. If we take a step back from our emotions, we allow ourselves to evaluate the facts of situation making it possible to respond in a variety of ways vs just fleeing or fighting (like problem-solving and approaching the situation).
Emotional reasoning examples
I feel like a slow runner, therefore I am a slow runner
I feel slow today, therefore I am out of shape
I feel like I will fail at reaching my goals, therefore I will fail
I feel like trying to train is hopeless, therefore there is no point in doing it because it is hopeless
My anxiety says that the other runners don't like me, therefore, this must be true and I will skip the group run
"Shoulds" tell us that we are not enough and that we are not doing enough.
The issue with "shoulds" is that we will never be satisfied with ourselves, no matter how hard we try because we are evaluating ourselves from a negative and judgmental place. They also discount all of the amazing things we are doing!
The thoughts are rooted in family or societal culture telling us the standards we "should" be living up to, but aren't.
"Should" thinking examples
I should go for a run, even though I am sick and completely exhausted
I should train for Boston Marathon, even though it doesn't excite me
I should run outside even though it is really cold and I would prefer to run on a treadmill
I should run 100 miles, because then people with consider me a "real ultra runner"
I should go to the group run this weekend since everyone else will be there
I shouldn't ask for support because it is a sign of weakness
I shouldn't miss a single run on my plan
I should be tougher and more motivated
Mental Filtering and Confirmation Bias
Mental filtering is when we have a lens of emotion between ourselves and reality, leading us to perceive reality in a very specific way. This could be a lens of anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction, etc. With mental filtering, we ignore the good that is occurring and only see things in a negative light because that is how the lens filters our world.
Confirmation bias is a type of mental filtering where we pay special attention to things that CONFIRM we are correct and discount facts that show that our ideas are incorrect.
Mental Filtering and Confirmation Bias Examples
Feeling like your coach or running friends only criticize your running after receiving just one comment of constructive feedback, ignoring the many compliments they have given you
You feel like your friend never invites you to a group run even though this has only happened once of the many times you have been invited to the runs
Fixating on things that pop up during a run that you don't enjoy (the weather, stop lights, cars not stopping at the cross walks) and ignoring all of the wonderful things that happen during your run
Focusing on the one race that didn't go well and ignoring all of the races that did go well (this is also true with training runs)
Believing that barefoot running is good for you and only seeking information that confirms this belief and ignoring information that is counter to this belief
This is when we take something about ourselves or a small group of people and generalize it to a larger group of people.
The issue with this distortion is that it discounts all of the individual difference between people. What works for us might not work for other people. Our opinions might not be the same as those of others. Or, just because one person in a social group behaves a certain way or demonstrates specific characteristics, this does not mean that all people of that group are that way. This also applies to places, things, and events.
Zero drop shoes are the best shoes for me so they are also the best shoes for all runners
A specific running plan works well for me, so it is also the best plan for all of my running friends
A specific treatment intervention worked well to get over my Achilles Tendonitis so it is the best treatment for all runners
My long run didn't go well, so my marathon won't go well
You join a new running group and one person was mean to you, therefore everyone in the group is mean
Hey runner! Dr. Jamie here. Although I am a physical therapist currently, my history is in mental health and addiction. I have my master's degree in Clinical Psychology and worked as a Dialectical Behavioral Therapist and Cognitive Behavior Therapist before changing careers. The mental aspect of running is truly fascinating to me and a huge part of my work as a way to address the whole person, focusing on total health and wellness vs just very specific aspects physical health. I hope you enjoyed this post on Cognitive Distortions!