Mental Filter: A Cognitive Distortion
Mental filter is one of the common cognitive distortions that cause you to think negatively. A person who engages in mental filtering sees the glass half empty despite having succeeded or experienced positive things, and as a consequence, their anxiety worsens.
Read on to learn about mental filtering, its symptoms, how it impacts your life, and CBT strategies you can use to tackle it.
What is Mental Filtering?
If you had a nice conversation with someone and they made a comment that hurt your feelings, and you couldn’t help but focus on that one comment, then you might be using a mental filter.
Similar to disqualifying the positive, another faulty thought pattern, mental filtering is when you ignore the positives in a situation and highlight the negative. People who have anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, can easily view a situation in a completely different way[*].
While their views do not always accurately represent reality, unfortunately, this makes them vulnerable to hopelessness and depression[*]. Going back to the example above, a mental filter might activate your inner critic, causing you to think things like, “I’m a loser” or “I’m not good enough.”
Symptoms of Mental Filtering
Pay attention to your assumptions, internal dialogue, and emotions. This will help you know whether mental filtering is taking hold of your life. Common symptoms include:
- Noticing everything that’s “wrong”
- Heightened stress, anxiety, and depression
- Self-defeating thoughts or believing you’re not good enough
- Downplaying your personal accomplishments
Who is at Risk for Mental Filtering?
People are likely to have mental filtering and other distorted thought patterns if they’ve experienced adverse events in their childhood and adolescent years. Research suggests that the longer and more severe these events are, the higher the chances that distorted patterns form[*].
According to Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, being too stressed out can also activate a negative thinking pattern[*]. Children, teens, and adults have various sources of stress, such as dealing with bullies at school or at the workplace, getting along with peers and teachers, a divorce, loss, and financial insecurity[*][*].
Research also shows that negative thoughts are common in those with depression and anxiety disorders — and for most of these people, even a small trigger (such as an unmet expectation) can lead to a surge of faulty thoughts[*].
Examples of Mental Filtering
What does a mental filter look like? Here are a few examples:
- School: Despite having received a very high score on your test, you focused on all your wrong answers.
- Workplace: Your co-worker made a mistake, which caused you to miss a deadline. She apologized for it, but you still focused on the mistake despite all the times she actually helped you.
- The news: While scrolling through Facebook newsfeed, you read about the recent fuel price hike. This made you anxious and ignore the other positive things you’ve read.
How Mental Filters Cause Problems
Since mental filtering sees all the negatives in a situation, it can be the reason why relationship problems happen. For example, a husband or wife who uses a negative mental filter can feel unloved or fall out of love because they dwell on all the wrong things that their partner has said or done in their marriage.
Another consequence of mental filters is that they make anxiety and depression worse in people who already have them. This is why cognitive behavioral therapy targets their thoughts so that they may be able to see things in a more factual way[*].
How to Overcome Mental Filtering
Changing the way you look at things is key to breaking the mental filter habit. You’ll find a list of helpful techniques along with downloadable worksheets if you are trying to help a child or teenager who often uses mental filters.
Catch your negative thought.
It’s important to notice when you’re using mental filters. Oftentimes, these hurtful thoughts just pop into your mind, so you’ll have to catch them right away. Therapists use a tool called a thought record that captures changes in your emotions that may be caused by a negative thought.
For example, when a child feels disappointed, they can use this worksheet to explore the thoughts that have caused them to feel that way. So, the next time it happens, they can counteract it with coping techniques, such as opening up to a trusted friend, practicing gratitude, and recalling your accomplishments.
Do a cost-benefit analysis.
A cost-benefit analysis is a strategy where you weigh the pros and cons of maintaining a thought pattern. Using it will allow you to decide whether a mental filter does you any good or not.
You can start by asking yourself questions like, “What can I possibly benefit from calling myself a failure?” “How can my belief about someone affect our relationship?” “How can this thought help or hurt my academic or work performance?”
Reframe your negative thoughts.
Curb self-defeating thoughts by reframing them. It means exploring alternative explanations to a situation that hurt your feelings instead of accepting the automatic thought you originally had.
For example, instead of focusing on how the situation affected you, you could perhaps view it from the other person’s perspective. It is possible that a friend or partner said or did something out of their own stress. This may serve as a reminder that people are going through different things, so don’t be too quick to judge a situation.
Reframing can help lift the weight off your shoulders. Try practicing it consistently until it becomes a habit.
When to Consult an Expert
People can successfully manage a mental filter as long as they can recognize its presence and apply cognitive therapy techniques themselves.
However, know that seeking professional help is always an option and you should never shy away from it. This is especially true if anxiety becomes debilitating to the point where you have trouble focusing, insomnia, panic attacks, and your health is suffering.
The Bottom Line
If you’re always recalling the bad things that have happened in a situation — in other words, seeing the glass half empty — then you (or someone you love) might be dealing with a mental filter.
Most of the time, you can overcome mental filtering using a variety of therapist-approved techniques. As you’ve learned in this article, you can start by noticing negative thoughts, doing a cost-benefit analysis, and reframing those thoughts.
For more CBT resources, check out our CBT worksheets. Our worksheets provide visual and written engagement to support different modalities of learning, which can enhance traditional talk or play therapy.
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- America Institute of Stress. Stress Research
- ScienceDirect. Negative Thinking
- Kaczkurkin A. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence. 2015 September