Metacognitive Therapy for Emotional Distress

· December 15, 2018

Just as there are many theories and terms in psychology that we’re commonly used to and that, to a greater or lesser extent, we all know about, there are others that are completely unknown to us. It’s common for us to learn about terms we hadn’t heard before when we go to therapy with a good, qualified psychologist. The same thing can happen in regards to metacognitive therapy.

In this article, we’ll explain what metacognitive therapy consists of and how it can help us to manage our discomfort.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”

-Aldous Huxley-

Sad man looking out the window.

What is metacognition?

When we go to a cognitive-behavioral psychologist who uses scientifically supported techniques, they usually follow an order. They start by evaluating the patient and then they come up with a personalized intervention plan. When the therapist explains what’s happening to us, they talk about how our emotions work and why we feel what we feel.

It’s important to keep in mind that a good part of the discomfort certain situations cause comes from the way we interpret them. This means that we can feel differently about the same situation depending on the thoughts we have at that moment. In fact, we may feel bad from time to time because our thoughts don’t match our current reality.

Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, questioning, and changing these automatic thoughts and irrational beliefs. By achieving this, it’s possible to bring down the intensity of negative emotions. However, bear in mind that in addition to taking these cognitions into account, we must also work on our metacognition.

Metacognition refers to the set of factors of interpretation, monitoring, and cognition control. In other words, it has to do with our thoughts and the way we think. Metacognition is related to our attempts to manage and give meaning to our thoughts, beliefs, and other cognitive processes.

“Reality is ultimately a selective act of perception and interpretation. A shift in our perception and interpretation enables us to break old habits and awaken new possibilities for balance, healing, and transformation.”

-David Simon-

Person assisting to metacognitive therapy.

What is metacognitive therapy?

That being said, negative metacognitive beliefs can produce emotional distress. Here are some examples of said beliefs: “Maybe I’m a bad person and that’s why I get negative thoughts”, “Worrying will help me be more prepared”, “If I analyze this, I’ll get the answers I’m looking for”, “If I understand the reason behind this, I may find a solution”, “I have no control over my thoughts”, and “Having bad thoughts will make me do bad things”.

These metacognitive beliefs feed those cognitive processes that cause, prolong, and worsen emotional discomfort. Some examples of this are rumination, worries, focusing attention on negative stimuli (negative attention bias), and focusing on the causes instead of on the solutions, among others.

We must note that individuals often implement ineffective control and suppression strategies which, in the end, intensify their negative emotions. Therefore, metacognitive therapy focuses on getting rid of those dysfunctional and jeopardizing techniques that an individual resorts to in order to manage their thoughts.

In other words, it seeks to change that inflexible way of thinking that “traps” the person in a negative thought processing. The objective of metacognitive therapy is changing the way we respond to our own thoughts.

This allows us to work more in-depth than with traditional cognitive therapy since we not only change the content of our thoughts but also the way we think about ourselves. Actually, studies in this regard show that metacognitive therapy is effective for the treatment of generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or major depressive disorder.