Friday, October 30, 2009

Cognitive Therapy, a Useful Add-On to Meditation?

Fear loomed large, as I went about my business today. The thought, 'I am catastrophizing', reminded me of "The 10 Cognitive Distortions", a useful tool from cognitive therapy, that I sometimes remember to pull out of my self-care toolbox. I first became familiar with CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) while working with patients at El Camino Hospital Older Adults Program, back in the early 90's. CBT has been proven particularly effective with persons suffering from depression, but it can be used by all who are struggling with emotionally charged situations. Pulled from the CBT Forum, here is a quick overview of "The 10 Cognitive Distortions":
It has been proven that people who have a tendency to experience overpowering moods, be it depression, anger, anxiety, worry etc., often have a tendency to form distorted cognitions or thought patterns.Below you can see the ten cognitive distortions that people typically fall into when they become trapped by negative emotions. Identifying these patterns when they arise and writing them down is the first step to taking control of your emotional state:
  1. All or nothing thinking: You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories. If you’re not a complete success, you think you’re a total failure.
  2. Overgeneralisation: You view a single event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. You may tell yourself, “This always happens,” or “I’ll never get it right.”
  3. Mental Filter: This is like the drop of ink that discolours the entire beaker of water. You dwell on one negative detail, such as an error you make, and ignore all the things you did right.
  4. Discounting the positive: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities don’t count.
  5. Jumping to conclusions: You jump to conclusions that aren’t warranted by the facts. There are two types: a) Mind-reading: You assume that people are terribly judgmental and are looking down on you; b) Fortune-telling: You tell yourself that something terrible is about to happen: “I just know I’m going to blow it when I take my test next week.”
  6. Magnification and minimization: You blow things out of proportion or shrink their importance. This is also called the binocular trick. When you look through one end of the binoculars, all your shortcomings seem as huge as Mt Everest. When you look through the other end, all your strengths and positive qualities seem to shrink down to nothing.
  7. Emotional reasoning: You reason from how you feel, such as “I feel anxious, so I must really be in danger.” Or “I feel like a loser, so I must really be one.”
  8. Should statements: You criticize yourself or other people with “shoulds,” “shouldn’ts,” “oughts,” “musts,” and “have-tos.” For example, “I shouldn’t feel so shy and nervous. What’s wrong with me?”
  9. Labelling: You generalize from a single flaw or shortcoming to your entire identity, instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you label yourself as “a loser.” This is an extreme form of Overgeneralisation.
  10. Blame: Instead of pinpointing the cause of a problem, you assign blame. There are two basic patterns of blame: a) Self-Blame: You blame yourself for something you weren’t responsible for or beat up on yourself relentlessly whenever you make a mistake; b) Other Blame: You blame others and deny your own role in the problem.
How do the recognition of cognitive distortions fit within Vipassana practice? I see a direct
connection with investigation, as described here by Gil Fronsdal:
By sorting through the unwholesome and the wholesome, we can choose to cultivate the wholesome and let go of the unwholesome. If you feel an inclination to be generous, for example, you can choose to water the seed of generosity by following through on that inclination. You may be able to distinguish mean-spirited feelings and choose to let them go. With enough mindfulness and investigation, you can even choose which thoughts to pursue and which to drop. You may be able to recognize when you are thinking along unwholesome lines and choose to think about something more useful.
Becoming familiar with the list of "10 Cognitive Distortions" will help sort out helpful from unhelpful thoughts, whenever the time comes. In turn, choosing to not indulge distorted thoughts will remove some of the stickiness of heavy feelings. Sometimes, one needs all the help they can get . . . and CBT is one more tool, that can work well within the context of meditation.


  1. Thanks for this post. Good reminders.


  2. Thanks Nathan. Just left a comment on your post "The Hell to Perfection" . . .

  3. I think CBT is a useful tool to use alongside insight practice.

    Ultimately, all thoughts are not-me, not-satisfying and not-lasting but sometimes it is useful to challenge unksillful thoughts, especially those that lead to suffering.

  4. Agree. I find meditation and psychology make for two good partners towards greater awareness.