Cognitive distortions and disordered eating: How to work with your thoughts

Updated: Jun 29



I discuss cognitive distortions often with my 1:1 clients in the Soulful Food and Body Experience.


Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that are either skewed or totally false. Our minds can convince us of things even when they aren't grounded in reality or truth and can become habitual over time.


The good news is, the more you're aware of different types of cognitive distortions, the easier it is to catch yourself in the midst of them.


Here's how it works 👇:


Learn about cognitive distortions >> notice them at play in your life >> challenge them >> write new thoughts >> develop new patterns of thinking


Voila!


Sounds easy enough... but this process takes time. You might as well start today! With this blog post!​

1. Black and white thinking


Also called "all or nothing thinking."


Black and white thinking divides your actions and behaviors into two distinct categories - often extremes - such as “good or bad,” “right or wrong,” “healthy or unhealthy.”


This dichotomous thinking prevents you from seeing life as a whole, a spectrum, or as a messy middle ground of grey.


Truth: Hanging out in the middle ground can feel scary. Sitting in the unknown without labels or concrete boxes can feel foreign and unsettling.


If something isn’t right or wrong… what is it?

If something isn’t healthy or unhealthy, how do we make sense of it?


As humans, putting concepts and actions into specific boxes helps us understand our world.


But most things, especially things related to your body and food, are not meant to be "either/or."


👉There is no right or wrong body.


👉There is no healthy or unhealthy food.


👉There is no good or bad food.


👉There is no healthy or unhealthy weight.


👉There is no good or bad way to eat.


LIFE IS A BLURRY MESS OF IN-BETWEENS and ALL-THE-ABOVES and EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULES.


The more you strive to put your body and food into boxes of "right and wrong" the more guilt, shame, and overwhelm you'll experience.


The more you're able to embrace the grey zone, the more flexibility, spontaneity, and joy you'll have in your life.


Want some help with this? My 1:1 coaching program might be just what you're looking for!


2. Catastrophizing


You can catch yourself catastrophizing when there are a lot of “what ifs” playing in your head.


Catastrophizing assumes the worst is going to happen and that it’s going to be real bad (aka it's exaggerated).


Sure, sometimes it’s helpful to consider possible negative consequences or outcomes of an action.

But catastrophizing is when our worries begin to spiral and you're imagining things that are 0%-1% likely to happen.

Catastrophizing can lead to anxiety and stunted growth.


Getting wrapped up in "what-ifs" can lead to some serious fear - often enough to keep people from taking action and moving forward.


Many clients have shared they're afraid to do many things as a result of low confidence or fear of food.


If we play out one of their "what if" situations action by action... you do this and they say that and then you say that and then they do this... until we ultimately arrive at their worst fear... I'll ask them what the odds are that this fear comes true. It's usually a very small chance.


At that point, it's best to let this fear go to the best of your ability. Worst-case scenarios do occasionally happen, but they are rare.


If it makes you feel better, come up with a plan for what to do or how you'll handle the situation if your worst fear comes true. Then move on. Know that you have this plan to fall back on and then try not to feed the thoughts that exaggerate your fears.





3. Jumping to conclusions


There are two main ways this happens:

Mind reading and fortune telling


✨Mind reading is when you assume to know what someone else is thinking.

I hear this all. the. time. with my clients. They'll come to me saying:


“I went to the pool last weekend and I just know they were over there judging me in my bathing suit.”

How do you know the thoughts going through their mind?


“Ugh, I hate gym class because people see my cellulite.”

Do you know for a fact that people are looking at your cellulite? Have you interviewed them all to see if they actually notice it?


“My partner was totally judging how much food I ate last night."

Oh really now? Is this truth or speculation?


Fortune telling is when you attempt to predict the future. It’s similar to catastrophizing in a sense, but fortune telling doesn’t have to be exaggerated or always negative. It’s just thinking you know what’s going to happen before it happens.

Some common situations:

"If I ask my mom to stop commenting on my weight, she’ll get her feelings hurt."

-This hasn’t happened yet, therefore it's a prediction not a fact.


"If I go clothes shopping I’m not going to find anything that fits."

-Again, this hasn’t happened yet. But your mind is stating it as a fact to be believed.


"If I lose weight, my partner will love me more."

-We cannot predict the future. Even if your partner has told you these exact words, it’s still risky to hold this as absolute truth. Rather, just hold it as a possibility.


(And also… either leave the relationship or see a couple’s therapist to help your partner learn to accept you at any weight.)


4. Mental Filtering


If you’ve ever known a “Negative Nancy” chances are she’s a culprit of mental filtering.

Mental filtering is when we have a negative mental filter. Meaning you cling to negative events, memories, and discount the positive. This second part is important.


Not only do people strongly believe the negative in their lives, but they also 🚫 don’t believe the positive.


For instance:


👉Let’s say over the course of a year, one person says they find your presence to be a lot to handle. But in that same year, twenty people tell you how much they value your opinion, they love going to parties with you, and you’re such a good friend.


Mental filtering would be keeping the “you’re too much” story on repeat while dismissing all the positive things people say about you.


👉You go to the beach and take approximately 100 selfies and group pics throughout the day… 'cause why not.


Once you get home you’re flipping through your camera roll and come across one picture that you find unflattering and you’re not a fan of.


Mental filtering is fixating on that picture. Mental filtering is saying “this is how I look” even though there are 99 other pictures showing a variety of angles, outfits, facial expressions, etc.


👉You like a lot of your body parts, but really struggle to love one aspect of yourself. Mental filtering would be standing in front of the mirror and only focusing on the part of your body you hate.


To challenge negative mental filtering you need to notice the positive AND start believing it as truth.


Pleasant events in your life are just as real as any others. Try not to write them off as a fluke.


5. Shoulds


Shoulds are made-up rules. Rules that you as an individual or a family or a society have created and decided to enforce.


The problem? They often play in our heads like a drill sergeant and they inevitably lead to guilt and shame.


Life has WAY fewer rules than you think it does.


Similar to what I said about black and white thinking, as humans we like order, structure, and predictability. So following “rules” gives us a sense of direction.


“I should go to college.”


“I should weigh x pounds.”


“I shouldn’t eat dinner after x o’clock.”


These “shoulds” begin playing in your head and you mistake them as a true rule and obligation.


Challenging "shoulds" can feel scary at first.


If you're not following (imaginary) rules, then how do you behave? How do you make decisions?


Try this:


👉 Start using the word “could” instead of “should.”


“I could go to college.”

“I could eat this food.”

“I could move my body today.”


Provide yourself with options rather than a command.



👉Get to know your authentic self.


What sounds good to you?

What would bring you joy?

What feels in alignment with your values, with your heart?


"Shoulds" are everywhere in diet-culture and I hear many concerns from clients about what they "should" eat or "should" look like.


I often ask my clients, "Who told you that? Where did you learn this? What power is telling you that you have to look/think/eat/behave/exercise/show up this exact way?"


Here's an example that doesn't involve food, but it's a great way of showing you how using "could" is more empowering than "should."


✨Maybe you’re having company this weekend and you have the thought “I should clean the house.”


Followed by a grunt, a heavyweight of obligation, and possibly resentment towards your house guests.


Instead, try saying “I could clean my house for these people or I could not.” There’s not actually a guidebook anywhere that says you HAVE TO clean your house for guests.


You now have a choice.


What choice do you want to make?

Which option sounds better to you?


If it’s important to you that your guests see your house a certain way, then say “I’m choosing to clean my house right now because this is important to me.”


This simple sentence reframe registers very differently in your body than a “should.”


Over time you'll notice a lot of things you thought you “had to” do that you actually don’t have to do at all.


The more you begin questioning and challenging your "shoulds," the more you'll get to know your authentic self and you'll step into your power!



Your thoughts are powerful and it's important to notice when they are grounded in reality and truth versus when they're grounded in fear, exaggeration, predictions, assumptions, or other skewed perceptions.


Making shifts in your thinking can greatly impact your sense of self and the way you live your life!


Let me know which ones you relate to the most!



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Ali Van Eck, & Chris Bradt