Our minds are not always reliable in interpreting events and experiences. Sometimes, they can play tricks on us, convincing us of things that may not be true, even though they feel rational. These inaccurate beliefs and faulty thought patterns are called cognitive distortions, and they can cause stress, anxiety, anger, and depression about ourselves and the world around us. By recognizing the different types of cognitive distortions and knowing how to challenge them, you can develop healthier perspectives, make more balanced decisions, and ultimately enhance your mental resilience and emotional intelligence.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
A cognitive distortion is defined as “faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief” by the American Psychological Association [*]. Negativity is often the defining characteristic of cognitive distortions, and anybody can experience them.
For some people, distorted thinking is just a temporary state of mind. For instance, a student may get upset that they failed their math test, briefly reasoning that they must be inherently bad at math instead of realizing that they need to study more. Usually, people are able to move on and try again after these setbacks.
However, for others, cognitive distortions are thinking patterns that interfere with their daily lives and relationships. In such cases, distorted thinking can lead to depression [*], chronic anxiety, and substance use.
What Causes Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions develop over time. It starts with the automatic thoughts we have in response to certain events, which then trigger specific emotions and behaviors [*]. Negative core beliefs can be activated and, in turn, elicit negative automatic thoughts. Over time, the sequence of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can become habitual and develop a cognitive distortion.
Ruminative thinking, which is composed of negative thought patterns that loop repeatedly in our minds, also contributes to cognitive distortions. This type of thinking can contribute to conditions like anxiety or depression. It often represents an ongoing attempt to develop insights or solutions to certain problems we may be facing. Unfortunately, it can turn into a counterproductive type of brooding. Such cognitive filters make life much more anxiety-inducing and challenging.
How Does Cognitive Distortion Affect Our Thoughts and Emotions?
The negative thought patterns that characterize cognitive distortions can play a role in our thoughts and emotions. It can lower self-esteem, diminish motivation, and, as mentioned earlier, contribute to problems like anxiety, depression, and substance use.
Everybody experiences cognitive distortions from time to time. However, when they become excessive, they can negatively impact your life and cause distress. Such patterns of thinking can also lead to maladaptive behaviors.
Common Cognitive Distortions
Here are some cognitive distortion examples that are good to know so you can identify them whenever you experience negative thought patterns. You can use a cognitive distortions poster or this list to refer to:
Sometimes called “all-or-nothing” or “polarized” thinking, this cognitive distortion occurs when you habitually think in extremes without considering all the possibilities in a given situation. Examples of this include thinking that there is only success or failure and that people are simply good or evil.
Overgeneralization is a sneaky cognitive distortion. Here, people use one instance or example to generalize an overall pattern. For instance, a student may receive a D on one test and come to the conclusion that they are stupid and a failure. Overgeneralizing can lead to increased negative thoughts about yourself and your environment based on just one or two experiences.
Mental filtering is all about removing the positives from a situation and, instead, focusing on its negatives. People who experience this cognitive distortion tend to focus on the negatives exclusively, even if there are objectively more positive aspects than negative ones in a certain situation. Fortunately, there are ways to change negative thoughts to positive thoughts, which can be very useful when confronted with a cognitive distortion like this.
Catastrophizing is distorted thinking that causes people to escalate their worries and assume the worst has happened when faced with the unknown. This is often done even without evidence to support their worst fears.
For example, a student may fail a test and begin to think that they will not pass their subjects. This can then lead to fears that they will never get into a good college and that, as a consequence, it won’t be possible to get a job, and they’ll end up homeless.
Catastrophizing is often dismissed as a “hysterical” overreaction. However, many people who have this cognitive distortion may have experienced repeated adverse events, like childhood trauma or chronic pain. This leads to fearing the worst in many situations. By breaking down anxious thoughts, you can calm down, get a better sense of the truth or reality, and do something about it.
One of the most common thinking errors is personalization, which is when we take things personally, even if they have nothing to do with us. One example is blaming yourself for circumstances outside of your control. Another common example is assuming that you have been intentionally targeted or excluded. This type of cognitive distortion has been associated with anxiety and depression [*].
In this cognitive distortion, people label themselves negatively, especially after an undesirable event has happened. For instance, people often reduce themselves or others to a single negative characteristic, such as “failure” or "stupid,” when things do not turn out as expected.
Labeling can cause people to define themselves or others based on a single instance or behavior. It can also result in the affected person misunderstanding or underestimating others. This cognitive distortion can often cause problems between people.
Emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion that involves the belief that your emotions are the truth. Oftentimes, we believe that the way we feel about certain situations is a reliable indicator of reality. This is not always the case. It is important to express and validate our emotions, but the entire situation must also be judged based on rational evidence happening in reality.
Even though it is by no means all-inclusive, this list of cognitive distortions highlights some of the most prevalent types that people encounter.
How to Challenge Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions, while common and potentially harmful, are not the end of the world. There are ways to challenge distorted thinking.
Identify the distorted thoughts
If a thought is causing anxiety or affecting your mood, a good first step is to figure out if any kind of distorted thinking is taking place. By identifying the distorted thought, it makes it much easier to manage and challenge negative thinking.
Reframing your thinking
A significant part of dismantling cognitive distortions is being aware of them and paying attention to how you frame things. By framing things in a healthy and positive way, it is more likely that you will experience less anxiety and isolation. However, this doesn’t mean engaging in toxic positivity or ignoring problems and negative feelings. It simply means approaching challenges with a can-do attitude rather than allowing thoughts and feelings to amplify anxiety.
Do cost-benefit analysis
Many individuals typically repeat behaviors that deliver some benefit. Think of the times in the past when your thought patterns have helped you cope. They may have given you a sense of control in situations where you felt powerless, or they may have prevented you from taking unnecessary risks. Weighing the pros and cons of your thought patterns can motivate you to change them.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
While cognitive distortions are challenging to manage, there are therapeutic treatments that can help, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps people identify troubling or traumatic situations in their lives and increase their awareness about the thoughts, beliefs, and even the inaccurate thoughts surrounding them. This treatment works by reshaping negative thoughts to be more conducive to healthy thinking.
The Bottom Line
Cognitive distortions can pose significant challenges in daily life, especially for people who are more prone to negative thinking. There are many types of cognitive distortions, and each presents its own setbacks. Fortunately, challenging cognitive distortions is possible, from identifying the negative thoughts themselves to seeking therapy and using tools such as CBT worksheets. Cognitive distortions may be present in everyday life, but that doesn’t mean we have to succumb to them, and there is hope.
- American Psychological Association. Cognitive distortion.
- Carneiro A, Pereira D, Fernandes F, et al. Distorted thoughts as a mediator of depressive symptoms in patients with major depressive disorder: a longitudinal study. 14 August 2023.
- Rnic K, Dozois D, Martin R. Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression. 19 August 2016.
- Kuru E, Safak Y, Özdemirc I, et al. Cognitive distortions in patients with social anxiety disorder: Comparison of a clinical group and healthy controls. 4 September 2017.