Cognitive Bias Mitigation: How to be Happy and Emotionally Healthy

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You cannot see schizophrenia the way you would see an amputated limb. Neither can you gauge the severity of depression the way you can tell a scratch from a fracture.

Part of why there is so much stigma around mental illnesses is because they do not exist in a concrete form. There have been many attempts by artists to capture or put a form to mental illnesses. A major part of conceptualizing them lies in vague metaphors.

Conceptualizing Mental Illnesses

People often refer to a mental illness as a dark, grey cloud that follows the person everywhere. Because mental illnesses are abstract by nature, it is hard to tell exactly what that gloomy cloud consists of.

What is the smallest part of depression? If we were to start breaking down anxiety into the minute particles that collectively form it, what would be left? What are the “atomic” particles that form bipolar disorder? No one truly knows, but there have been a few guesses.

One of such guesses is the widely accepted “Cognitive Bias Theory”, the ground on which the infamous Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is based.

What is Cognitive Bias Theory?

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Imagine mental illnesses as massive walls, each made up of a different set of bricks. The Cognitive Bias based approach states that a major part of the bricks that form the entire wall are our negative automated thoughts or our ‘cognitive biases’.

Caught through different environmental, genetic and social factors, these cognitive biases unknowingly become a part of our thinking process. As a result, they create that gloomy ‘cloud’ of negative feelings and behaviors that seem to follow us everywhere.That is not to say that cognitive biases are the only factors that contribute towards mental illnesses. After all, there is a reason Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an effective treatment for a variety of mental illnesses. These include mood disorders, eating disorders, anxiety and personality disorders.

How to Be Happy: A Guide to Replacing the Most Common Cognitive Biases

Depending on the symptoms that you struggle with, your negative automated thoughts and cognitive biases may vary. Some of the most common unhelpful thinking patterns and their alternative positive thoughts are mentioned below.

Wearing Your Gloomy Specs

If we were to weigh the good and bad that happens to you on a scale, which side would tip downwards?

If you find yourself minimizing the good things enough to be causing you mental distress, perhaps it is time for a little change.

A Distorted Thought: I’m not smart enough to get into my dream college. In fact, I will probably not get into any college at all. I’ll probably be working a minimum wage job all my life, and will have to take loans to take care of myself. I will get a lethal disease in a few years as well-

Alternative Thoughts: Am I making mountains out of molehills? Am I exaggerating the danger and paying no mind to the good aspects? How likely is the danger to happen? How would someone unrelated to me see this situation? Am I seeing the bigger picture?

Compare and Despair

Comparing yourself with your friends, family and co-workers is all fun and games. However, it might be time for a little introspection if it is making you increasingly miserable.

A Distorted Thought: I’m never going to be as pretty, smart and funny as that person. I do not have any redeeming qualities at all.

Alternative Thoughts: Am I pitting completely different situations up with each other? Am I comparing my ‘insides’ to someone else’s ‘outsides’? What would be a more balanced approach to this situation?

Black and White Thinking

This is categorized by the use of words like “never” “always” . Things always have to fit in a box of extremely good to extremely bad; any variation is unacceptable.

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A Distorted Thought: If I do not get A’s and B’s, I have essentially failed.

Alternative Thought: Things do not exist in dichotomies. Good and bad co-exist within the same situation and objects. How bad and good is this situation on the ‘spectrum’?

Mind Reading

If you find yourself jumping to unwarranted conclusion without any evidence, you are guilty of this cognitive bias. Usually, the predictions are gross generalizations and end up making us feel awful.

A Distorted Thought: They have not replied to my texts, so they hate me. Everyone in my office thinks I’m a failure!

Alternative Thoughts: Am I ‘projecting’? Am I claiming to read that person’s mind? What valid proof do I have? Are these actually their thoughts or my own?

Personalization (The Mother of Guilt)

Personalization makes you attribute to yourself every negative energy that surrounds you. Often it is accompanied by uses of words like “must” “should” and feelings of inadequacy and shame.

A Distorted Thought: “I feel a responsibility to help my friend. If they are in trouble, it is my fault.”

Alternative Thoughts:  Do I expect other people to fulfill the same obligations that I expect of myself? Am I evaluating myself by my own standards or someone else’s? What would be more practical?

What do You Get Out of Challenging Your Cognitive Biases?

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If you continuously feel yourself carrying that dark cloud of misery around with you, consider working with a CBT therapist. Alternatively, you can also self-help by challenging these cognitive biases.

  1. Know what they are. Here is a comprehensive list.
  2. Keep track of your cognitive biases for a week.
  3. Pick out the negative patterns.
  4. Challenge them with alternative thoughts.

Although it is not possible to break the entire metaphorical wall of your mental illness, unhinging certain bricks might just be enough to get you through.

References

Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.

Burns, D. D. (2012). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.

Leahy, R.L. (2017). Cognitive Therapy Techniques, Second Edition: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Guilford Press.

McKay, M. & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-Esteem: A Proven Program of Cognitive Techniques for Assessing, Improving, and Maintaining Your Self-Esteem. New York: New Harbinger Publications

Beck, Aaron T. (1972). Depression; Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Tagg, John (1996). Cognitive Distortions. Retrieved from http://daphne.palomar.edu/jtagg/cds.htm#cogdis

Vivyan, Carol (2009). Finding Alternative Thoughts. Retrieved from www.getselfhelp.co.uk/unhelpful.htm

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