Certain patterns of thinking make you more likely to experience anxiety, depression, anger, and other problems. These patterns are called cognitive distortions, and you can learn to counter them.
Cognitive distortions are a type of thinking we are all vulnerable to. The term refers to thinking that is negatively biased in some way. The thoughts can be about ourselves, others, or the world around us. They often happen automatically — like a reflex.
Everyone experiences cognitive distortions to some degree, but when they happen a lot they can cause anxiety, low mood, and distress.
Here are the most common types of cognitive distortions (Burns, 1999):
The tendency to evaluate oneself, others, or situations in extreme, black-and-white ways. For example, Because I got a B+ on my exam, I’m a total failure.
Making broad interpretations based off a few events. For example, a person drops their sandwich on the floor and concludes, Nothing good ever happens to me.
Mental filter refers to when one overly focuses on negative aspects of oneself or a situation. For example, a soccer player who scores countless goals throughout her season dwells on the one game she did not score and forgets all about her past successes.
Disqualifying the Positive
Transforming neutral or positive experiences into negative ones by discounting the good things that have happened. For example, a skateboarder lands a difficult trick and thinks, That was a fluke, it doesn’t count.
Jumping to Conclusions
Making negative, arbitrary predictions about what others think, or about the future. For example, a friend does not return your phone call and you assume, He’s intentionally avoiding me, rather than, Maybe he’s busy and forgot. Another example of jumping to conclusions would be I’ll never meet someone to settle down with. Jumping to conclusions is one of the most common cognitive distortions for people who suffer from anxiety.
Magnification and Minimization
Blowing things out of proportion (magnification), or shrinking something to make it seem less important (minimization). For example, you get one bad grade on an exam and think, How awful! I’ll never get into college now. On the flip side, one might get a perfect score on an exam and think, It was just one exam, it doesn’t mean that much.
Assuming that because you feel a certain way, your thoughts must be true. For example, I feel worthless, therefore I am worthless.
Applying critical words like “should” or “must” to ourselves or others. For example, I should exercise today or He shouldn’t be running so late. Using critical language often creates unnecessary feelings of pressure and resentment.
Assigning negative labels to ourselves or others. For example, I’m lazy, or, They’re dumb. Labeling can also be viewed as a form of black-and-white thinking, as it suggests that there is only one extreme way of characterizing oneself or someone else.
Assuming responsibility for something that you do not have complete control over. For example, a cancer patient is not doing well, and the patient’s doctor thinks, I’m a lousy doctor. It’s all my fault that the patient isn’t getting better.
What To Do Once You Notice Cognitive Distortions
- Keep in mind that the way that you think about situations depends largely on your mood. You are more likely to experience irrational thoughts when you are feeling anxious or down.
- Remember that your feelings are not facts! Your feelings mirror the way you think, and if your thinking isn’t accurate, your feelings will not entirely reflect the truth. Sometimes it’s good to question your thoughts and feelings, even if they feel genuine.
- Identify thoughts that may be contributing to your feeling anxious, depressed, or angry. Try writing down self-critical or negative thoughts as they run through your mind, especially in situations where you feel upset.
- Evaluate your negative thoughts by reviewing the evidence for and against them. For example, let’s say you have the thought, I never do anything right. Ask yourself: What evidence actually supports this thought? Are there times in my life when I did do something well?
- With the above information in mind, substitute your negatively biased thought with a thought that reflects the facts. For example: Like all humans, I’m not perfect and I certainly make mistakes; however, there are many things I have done in my life I am proud of. If it is difficult for you to come up with an alternative thought, consider what you might say to a friend who had the same thought you did.
- Practice, and be patient with yourself. Identifying and talking back to distorted thoughts is a skill that takes time to develop. It can be challenging to master on one’s own, especially for those who feel anxious or depressed.
Consider seeking help from a cognitive-behavioral therapist (learn about cognitive-behavioral therapy) if you have a lot of cognitive distortions and could use some help reducing their impact on your life!