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Unraveling cognitive distortions: A guide to clearer thinking

Unraveling cognitive distortions: A guide to clearer thinking

Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thoughts that we believe to be rational but only serve to perpetuate negative thought patterns and behaviors—ones that often make us feel bad about ourselves. 

Because cognitive distortions are the backbone of negative thinking and emotions, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on helping patients change these patterns. In CBT, individuals must first learn to identify the distortions, and once they can, they can refute or challenge them. Over time, more rational thinking will replace this negative thinking.

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts that can reinforce negative thinking and emotions. These distortions often perpetuate the cycle of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues by skewing perceptions of reality. 

Types of Common Distortions

There are a variety of different types of cognitive distortions. Examples include:

  • Polarized thinking: This is often referred to as “black-and-white thinking” or “all-or-nothing thinking” because it’s a mindset where things are either one extreme or another — meaning you can either be perfect or a complete failure, but nowhere in between. One example could be concluding that you are a complete failure after failing at one simple task.
  • Overgeneralization: This cognitive distortion causes sweeping conclusions to be made based on a single incident. If one thing goes wrong, you then expect and assume it will keep happening. For instance, you may get a flat tire on your way to work, and instead of taking it for what it is — an independent, unfortunate event — you foresee a bad day ahead and anticipate more bad things to come.
  • Catastrophizing: Also known as “magnifying or minimizing,” this is when you expect the worst, often leading to undue stress and anxiety. Once you hear about a potential problem, you may trail off on “what-if” questions. Imagine you’ve just found out that the company you work for is making big budget cuts. Instead of hoping you’ve demonstrated your value, you assume that you will be the first employee to go.
  • Filtering: Filtering is focusing solely on negative details and blowing them out of proportion. One example would be having a meeting with your boss where she gives you a good evaluation overall, but all you can think about is what she asked you to improve on — forgetting all about the good and magnifying the latter.
  • Jumping to conclusions: Instead of finding out the facts, jumping to conclusions involves being convinced that you know what’s going on or how someone is feeling based on a vague event or action. For example, you may assume that a friend is mad at you because you haven’t heard from them in a couple of days.
  • Blaming: This involves either blaming others or yourself for everything bad that happens. For example, if you feel down on yourself, you may place the blame on your boyfriend or friends, who really have nothing to do with your unhappiness. Or, contrarily, you could blame yourself for being upset when in reality your friends aren’t treating you very well.
  • Emotional reasoning: This causes you to equate your feelings with reality, believing something must be true simply because it feels true. This can lead to reinforcing negative beliefs about yourself or your situation. For example, believing that if you fail a test, you must be a stupid person.
  • Control fallacies: There are two types of control fallacies: external control and internal control. Someone who feels externally controlled believes that fate or luck is responsible for their fortunes and misfortunes. Someone who feels internally controlled believes that they are responsible for their fortunes and misfortunes, as well as everyone else’s. For example, if a coworker complains about having a bad day, an internally controlled person assumes that it’s because of something they did.
  • Fairness fallacy: If you engage in the fairness fallacy, you believe you know what is fair and what isn’t and are constantly measuring a situation based on your scale of fairness. As a result, you may often feel negative because things do not always work out the way you expect or think that they should.
  • Personalization: This is simply taking everything personally or to heart. You assume that everything others do or say is a direct effect of how you feel about the individual. For example, if nobody sits next to you at work or school, personalization would be jumping to the conclusion that it’s because of something you said or did.
  • Mind reading: A distortion where you assume you know what others are thinking or predict future events without evidence, often leading to misinterpretations and unwarranted fears. This can cause significantly decreased insight and can hinder any form of communication within relationships due to the fixation on the person’s truth/perception as the absolute truth/perception.

Though many of these often accompany mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, the presence of cognitive distortions is not a true indicator of a specific condition. Cognitive distortions can develop for a number of reasons, so if you see any of these beliefs functioning within you, consider speaking with a mental health professional about them. They can help you get to the bottom of what caused them to develop and give you tools to check their influence on your daily life.

Recognizing Cognitive Distortions in Yourself

Recognizing cognitive distortions in yourself involves developing a heightened awareness of thought patterns and the habitual ways in which your mind processes information, often leading to negative or inaccurate beliefs. 

Cognitive distortions are systematic errors in thinking, typically subconscious, that reinforce negative thinking and emotions. To identify these distortions, it is crucial to engage in self-reflection and mindfulness, paying close attention to the automatic thoughts that arise in response to various situations.

First, one should monitor their emotional responses, as strong negative emotions like anxiety, depression, or anger often signal underlying cognitive distortions. If you feel too overwhelmed or dysregulated to assess your emotions right away, try some deep breathing exercises to calm yourself and focus your mind.

Once a strong emotion is identified, the next step is to scrutinize the thoughts associated with that emotion. Journaling can be a practical tool in this process. By writing down situations, associated thoughts, and resulting emotions, patterns of distortions can be revealed. For instance, one might notice a pattern of “all-or-nothing thinking,” where situations are viewed in black-and-white terms, without recognizing the gray areas in between.  

Another useful technique is to challenge these thoughts by asking yourself questions like, “What evidence do I have for this belief?” or “Are there other ways to view this situation?” This can help in identifying cognitive distortions such as jumping to conclusions or mind reading, where one assumes they know what others are thinking without any real evidence.

Finally, seeking feedback from trusted friends or mental health professionals can provide an external perspective on your thinking patterns. They can often spot distortions that you might miss and offer more balanced viewpoints. Recognizing and addressing cognitive distortions is a gradual process that involves consistent self-examination and a willingness to question and adjust habitual ways of thinking.

How Do Cognitive Distortions Impact Mental Health?

Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that are inaccurate, biased, or irrational. These distortions can have a significant impact on mental health, as they can negatively influence emotions, behaviors, and overall well-being. Here’s how cognitive distortions can affect mental health:

  • Negative self-perception: Cognitive distortions often lead to negative self-perception, where individuals consistently interpret situations in ways that reinforce feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, or failure. This can contribute to low self-esteem, self-doubt, and a lack of confidence.
  • Worsened anxiety: Distortions can exacerbate anxiety and stress, causing increased rumination, internalized social pressure, and overall negative beliefs about oneself and one’s capabilities. Individuals may become overwhelmed by minor setbacks or anticipate catastrophic consequences, leading to heightened levels of anxiety and fear.
  • Relationship difficulties: Cognitive distortions can negatively impact relationships, which in turn can negatively impact mental health. These distortions can cause a lack of trust in others and oneself, a need for validation and reassurance, a belief that others are doing enough for you, and many other issues that can create distance and conflict in relationships.
  • Emotional disturbances: Cognitive distortions often reinforce negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and guilt. When individuals consistently engage in distorted thinking patterns, they may experience chronic stress, depression, and mood disorders.

These are just a few of the ways that cognitive distortions can negatively impact mental and emotional wellness. Cognitive distortions are pervasive and often deeply rooted, so deep self-reflection and consistent awareness of thought patterns are important in unraveling them.

Addressing cognitive distortions typically involves cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, which help individuals identify and challenge these patterns of thinking. By recognizing and correcting cognitive distortions, individuals can improve their mental health, enhance coping strategies, and develop more balanced and realistic outlooks on life.

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Strategies for Challenging Cognitive Distortions

Challenging cognitive distortions can be done using several coping strategies aimed at identifying and altering negative and irrational thought patterns that cause emotional distress and maladaptive behaviors. 

One common approach is cognitive restructuring, which involves recognizing distorted thoughts, evaluating their validity, and replacing them with more balanced and rational ones. This can be facilitated through techniques like Socratic questioning, where individuals critically examine the evidence for and against their beliefs, consider alternative viewpoints, and assess the impact of their thoughts. 

Another effective strategy is the use of thought records, a technique that involves documenting distressing situations, the automatic thoughts and emotional responses that accompany them, and alternative interpretations that could be implemented instead. This process can help promote a deeper understanding of cognitive processes. 

Mindfulness-based approaches also play a crucial role in challenging cognitive distortions. Mindfulness can help individuals learn to observe their thoughts without judgment, eventually reducing their tendency to react impulsively. This non-reactive awareness helps individuals distinguish between thoughts and reality, diminishing the power of distortions. 

Behavioral experiments are another practical method, involving the testing of negative beliefs through real-life activities. For example, someone with social anxiety might engage in social interactions to challenge their fear of rejection and gather evidence that contradicts their distorted beliefs. 

Furthermore, developing self-compassion and practicing positive affirmations can counteract the harsh self-criticism that cognitive distortions can cause, fostering a more supportive internal dialogue. 

Cognitive Restructuring Techniques: How Do They Work?

Cognitive restructuring techniques are fundamental components of cognitive behavioral therapy, a widely used psychological treatment for various mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. CBT operates on the idea that individual thoughts and beliefs can significantly influence emotional and behavioral reactions. 

Cognitive restructuring aims to identify and challenge maladaptive thoughts, transforming them into more balanced and constructive perspectives. With the help of a mental health professional, the process typically begins with the identification of negative automatic thoughts, which are spontaneous and often subconscious reactions to situations.

These thoughts are recorded and examined critically to determine their validity, or “trueness.” Techniques such as thought records or cognitive diaries are used to capture these thoughts in detail, alongside the emotional and behavioral responses they provoke. By analyzing these records, individuals and therapists can spot patterns and cognitive distortions—irrational ways of thinking such as overgeneralization, catastrophizing, and black-and-white thinking. 

Once identified, the next step is to challenge these cognitive distortions. This involves questioning the evidence for and against distorted thoughts, exploring alternative viewpoints, and assessing the real-life implications of these beliefs. Techniques like Socratic questioning and guided discovery help individuals develop a more nuanced and realistic understanding of their experiences. 

The ultimate goal of cognitive restructuring is to replace negative, distorted thoughts with more accurate and balanced ones, thereby reducing emotional distress and promoting healthier behavior. Over time, this process not only alleviates symptoms of mental health disorders, but also equips individuals with skills to manage future stressors more effectively. By continually applying these techniques, individuals can foster a more resilient and adaptive mindset, leading to improved overall well-being.

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Theresa Lupcho, LPCLicensed Professional Counselor
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Theresa Lupcho is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

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Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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  • Duman, N. (2018). A research on cognitive distortion in working adults. Istanbul.

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on October 17, 2017

    Author: Taylor Bennett

  • Updated on June 17, 2024

    Authors: Hannah DeWitt; Theresa Lupcho, LPC

    Reviewer: Alexandra Cromer, LPC

    Changes: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding information about what cognitive distortions are, how to recognize them, how they impact mental health, strategies to challenge them, and how cognitive restructuring works; article was clinically reviewed to double confirm accuracy and enhance value.

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