Emotional Reasoning: A Cognitive Distortion
An emotion, whether positive or negative, plays a crucial role in your survival, decision-making, and ability to maintain relationships with those around you[*].
But while emotions matter, they lead to problems when you let them run your life despite contradictory evidence. Some people experience this type of cognitive distortion called emotional reasoning.
Learn how it can be detrimental to your mental health and well-being, the signs you’re suffering from it, and how to overcome it.
What is Emotional Reasoning?
As the term implies, emotional reasoning is when you make conclusions about something based solely on your emotions. Aaron Beck and his colleagues refer to it as “mistaking feelings for facts.”[*]
Research shows that this negative thinking pattern is a common characteristic among individuals suffering from anxiety disorders — this includes phobias, separation anxiety, panic disorders, and generalized anxiety disorder[*].
For instance, you’re feeling jealous in a relationship. This intense feeling makes you believe that your partner must be unfaithful to you even if they did nothing wrong.
How Emotional Reasoning Can Be Harmful
Accepting feelings as reality can affect every area of your life. As in the example above, it can sabotage your relationships by causing trust issues. If not, emotional reasoning can lead to self-defeating behaviors — such as being too critical of yourself, comparing yourself to others, or perfectionism — which prevent you from finding the right connections.
Being stuck in negativity may also lead to procrastination where you put off important tasks in order to feel better. People with anxiety often worry about the future or what could possibly go wrong and as a result, they procrastinate.
A 2021 paper found that emotional reason can serve as a risk factor for depression. Depressed individuals, on the other hand, allow their negative feelings to take hold of their thoughts, which then results in a vicious cycle[*].
How to Tell if Someone is Suffering from Emotional Reasoning?
Here’s are common signs of emotional reasoning:
- Experiencing strong emotions without any proof
- Saying or doing something that made you feel regretful later on
- Believing in negative future events based on how you currently feel
- Doing things that negatively affect you and others due to your emotions getting out of hand
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective means of identifying emotional reasoning and other cognitive distortions. Simply being aware of these thought patterns is a step towards dismantling them.
Examples of Emotional Reasoning
What does emotional reasoning look like? Below are some examples:
- Sophia woke up one morning feeling anxious. This made her believe that something terrible would happen in school.
- Danny feels “fat” even though everyone is giving her great compliments about her fitness transformation.
- You can’t help but feel “worthless” or “insignificant” despite having made huge progress in your career.
- Aaron feels angry, therefore, someone must have done something wrong to make him feel that way.
Dealing with Emotional Reasoning
Although the feelings experienced by someone with emotional reasoning aren’t based on facts, it’s important to avoid rejecting or dismissing these feelings.
Telling someone, “Your feelings are wrong,” “You’re overreacting,” or “You’ll get over it” in an attempt to cheer them up might just make their anxiety worse. Offering unsolicited advice is also unhelpful and can sometimes be perceived as manipulation.
Instead, accept your own emotions or someone else’s without judging or believing in them. Doint this prevents things from escalating.
Thankfully, there are many strategies that promote emotional acceptance, such as grounding. It’s a coping technique that forces you to focus on the present moment to reduce emotional distress.
Check out these grounding worksheets to help a child or teen who’s suffering from emotional reasoning:
- Grounding Techniques for Kids & Teens Printable Handout
- 2-4-6-8-10 Grounding Techniques PDF Worksheet
- 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique PDF Worksheet
How to Overcome Emotional Reasoning
Addressing emotional reasoning involves a combination of strategies, which you can do on your own or with the help of a professional who’s trained in CBT. Below, you’ll find a three-step process to get started.
Be aware of your emotional reaction.
Emotional reasoning is solved by first recognizing how you feel. A daily feelings check-in can be a simple yet effective way to stay attuned to your emotions.
I mentioned in this article how important feelings are and how they should be acknowledged. The more specific you are in describing an emotion or feeling, the better you can be at helping yourself.
Once you identify it, unpack it by thinking about the things that may have triggered it — for example, a stressful event, memory, or something you saw or heard.
Parents who are trying to understand what triggers their children’s emotions may also use this What Makes Me Feel Worksheet where their kids can write down the things that make them happy, angry, nervous, sad, and lonely.
Look for evidence that contradicts your assumption.
Therapists usually challenge their patients to find evidence for their beliefs by asking relevant questions, such as[*]:
- “What else is true?”
- “What are other ways to look at this?”
You can use these questions on yourself to look for evidence. It may also be helpful to write down your answers on paper or a thought record when examining evidence against a negative assumption.
CBT therapists may also recommend conducting a behavioral experiment. It involves putting an assumption to the test and then reflecting on the results to test its accuracy.
Practice coping strategies.
While you can’t always avoid negative emotions, you can prevent them from getting the best of you. Here are tips that will help:
- Use “calm down” strategies like hugging a pillow, journaling, and going for a walk. Here’s a printable handout with 101 calm down strategies for kids.
- Talk to someone you trust who can offer judgment-free support. For example, a parent, teacher, or therapist.
- Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation.
- Since stress is a common trigger for anxiety, which predisposes a person to cognitive distortions, keep stress under control each day. Coping with stress includes habits like eating healthily, getting adequate sleep, and exercising.
When to Seek Professional Help
Experiencing the signs of emotional reasoning is sufficient enough to ask for help from an expert. If you or someone you know (child, student, relative, friend) needs help with overcoming emotional reasoning, therapists and other mental health professionals are the best people to approach.
Emotional reasoning is a common cognitive distortion in people with anxiety disorders. It can lead to low self-worth, affect relationships, and prevent someone from helping themselves through depression if they already have it.
Solving this problem requires being aware of your thoughts and searching for actual evidence to disprove a negative belief. Calm down techniques, daily stress management, and getting professional assistance will help you get past emotional reasoning and maintain good mental health.
- Jung N, Wranke C, Hamburger K et al. How emotions affect logical reasoning: evidence from experiments with mood-manipulated participants, spider phobics, and people with exam anxiety. 2014 June 10
- Berle D, Moulds M, Starcevic V et al. Does emotional reasoning change during cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety? 2016 January 06
- Gangemi A, Dahò M, Mancini F. Emotional Reasoning and Psychopathology. 2021 April 08
- Fenn K, Byrne M. The key principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. 2013 September 06