Cognitive Distortions: Put an End to Distorted Thinking

Are unhelpful or irrational thoughts affecting your peace of mind? Learn how to put a stop to catastrophizing and other negative thinking patterns, restructure how you talk to yourself, and ease anxiety.

What are cognitive distortions?

Cognitive distortions are inaccurate and negative thinking patterns or beliefs. These distortions color your view of yourself, others, experiences, and the world around you.

You might regularly think, “No one likes talking to me. I’m a loser. I won’t make any friends,” or enter a work meeting telling yourself, “I’m going to mess this up and make a fool of myself.” These negative expectations and predictions can fuel anxiety, sadness, low self-esteem, and depression.

Distorted thinking can occur even when there’s little to no evidence to back up the thoughts. You might overlook or minimize all the positive interactions you have with other people during the day and only focus on a single negative. Or you could be well-prepared for a work meeting, with no reason to believe your coworkers will be critical, but still catch yourself ruminating on the worst possible outcome.

Even if you know that your negative thoughts are irrational, it can still cause frustration. You may be dismayed at how cognitive distortions shape your behavior—robbing you of sleep or leading you to shy away from social situations. You may even fear that you’ll never be able to escape your inner negativity—which is itself another distorted thought.

Know that you are not powerless over your thoughts, and you’re certainly not alone as you grapple with unhelpful thinking styles. At one time or another, most of us are plagued by cognitive distortions. But there are techniques you can use to sort through irrational thoughts, unravel their power over you, and regain your peace of mind. It all starts with understanding cognitive distortions, their causes, and how they work.

Types of cognitive distortions

Everyone’s mind works differently, but there are 10 common types of cognitive distortions that you’re most likely to experience. By identifying which ones affect you most frequently, you can learn to deconstruct and reframe your thoughts in a more realistic and positive way.

1. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is when you expect the worst possible outcome of a situation. It can lead you to interpret even harmless circumstances as threatening.

  • “What if I say ‘no’ and she hates me?”
  • “What if this tightness in my chest is a heart attack?”
  • “What if my son was in a car accident, and that’s why he’s not calling?”

2. Mental filtering

This is when you fixate on the negatives of a situation and overlook any positives. For example, you have a great date but only focus on a single embarrassing statement you made. You perform well in class but continually beat yourself up for one question you didn’t do well on.

3. Jumping to conclusions

This involves deciding that something is true or likely to happen without any supporting evidence. Jumping to conclusions can take the form of mind reading, such as:

  • “I can’t think of what to say next, and now this person thinks I’m boring.”
  • “She wants to break up with me but won’t say it yet.”

It can also take the form of predictive thinking or fortune-telling:

  • “My mind is going to go blank when I start this test.”
  • “I’m going to let everyone down in this basketball game.”

4. Emotional reasoning

In emotional reasoning, you assume your emotional state reflects the reality of a situation.

  • “I feel guilty, so I must have done something wrong.”
  • “I feel lonely, so people must be avoiding me.”

It’s a line of thinking that might commonly emerge in panic disorder, in which sensations like rapid heartbeat can lead you to conclude that something is wrong. “I feel anxious; therefore, something bad must be happening or about to happen.”

5. Polarized thinking

This distortion is sometimes called black-and-white thinking, splitting, or all-or-nothing thinking. You ignore any middle ground or grey area. Instead, everything is simplified to one extreme or the other.

  • “If we disagree about something, we can’t be a good match.”
  • “If I can’t complete this task, I might as well quit this job.”

6. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is based on some degree of evidence, but you then use that evidence to make sweeping negative assumptions. Words like “never” and “every” tend to show up a lot in this thought pattern.

  • “I lost my keys. I can never keep track of things.”
  • “I eventually ruin every friendship I have.”

7. Labeling

Labeling involves defining yourself or others based on specific negative events. You might label yourself an “idiot” or “failure” because you made a mistake at work. Or maybe you think of yourself as a “slob” or “lazy” because you don’t keep up with your workout routine or diet.

Labeling can weigh on your self-esteem as you begin to imagine yourself as someone who isn’t “good enough” and cannot change.

8. Personalization

Personalization is when you imagine yourself as the cause of problems, even if the situation is out of your control.

  • “My friend is really sick. I should’ve pushed her to get vaccinated.”
  • “My brother is having a terrible time at this party. I shouldn’t have asked him to come.”

9. Should (and should not) statements

These are internal statements that lead you to hold unrealistically high standards for yourself.

  • “I shouldn’t cause problems by speaking up.”
  • “I should always know the right thing to say.”

They can also take the form of “must” statements.

  • “I must make sure the house is spotless for my guests.”
  • “I must make the perfect meal for my spouse.”

10. Dismissing the positive

Also known as minimizing, this involves discounting positive experiences. In other words, coming up with reasons why the good things in life “don’t count” or are not valid.

  • “I only got this job because the interviewer was desperate to fill the position.”
  • “People only hang out with me because they feel sorry for me.”

This can drag down your self-image and is a common issue in imposter syndrome.

Effects of unhelpful thinking styles

Although they take place in your mind, cognitive distortions can have far-reaching consequences and effect many other aspects of your life. If you’re catastrophizing a financial situation, for example, it could disrupt your sleep at night or cause physical symptoms like tension, headaches, or an upset stomach. If your inner voice tells you that you’re a failure, you might hesitate to pursue new opportunities at work or in your personal life.

Internalizing the distorted thought, “People always leave me,” could make you suspicious of your partner and wreck your relationship. Or you may avoid communicating with your partner because your inner voice is jumping to conclusions about the negative outcome of the conversation.

Cognitive distortions can contribute to anxiety, including specific anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and social anxiety disorder. Distortions such as mind-reading, all-or-nothing thinking, and emotional reasoning can lead you to see threats all around you, whether they come in the form of other people or relatively benign health symptoms.

Researchers also believe that cognitive distortions play a role in depression by constantly reinforcing negative views of yourself, your experiences, and your world. You might have tunnel vision that amplifies the “bad” in life while disregarding all the “good.”

Causes of distorted thinking

Everyone engages in negative thinking from time to time. However, when repeated often enough, those thoughts can become part of a consistent pattern or evolve into strongly held beliefs.

In some cases, you can think of cognitive distortions as the brain looking for mental shortcuts. Instead of dealing with the uncertainty of future events, you make a habit of assuming the worst will always happen. Instead of wondering what another person thinks of you, you develop a narrative about how they dislike you.

In other cases, negative thought patterns can be your mind’s way of looking for solutions for future problems, such as a potential failing grade or a relationship breakup. However, this attempt at problem-solving turns problematic when it simply stresses you out or darkens your view of the world.

Distorted thinking patterns are likely to emerge in times of high stress. Some research shows that people who experience adverse events in childhood—such as financial hardship, illness, or injury—are more likely to experience cognitive distortions later in life.

You may feel that your distorted thoughts are too deeply ingrained to unravel. But don’t feel discouraged. No matter their origin or how persistent they feel, there are ways for you to reframe how you talk to yourself, ease your anxiety, and put a stop to cognitive distortions. The journey starts with developing an understanding of your negative thought patterns, and then taking active steps to challenge and replace them (known as “cognitive restructuring”).

Cognitive restructuring

Tip 1: Catch your cognitive distortions

Before you can begin to untangle unhelpful thinking patterns, you’ll need to take note of your most common negative thoughts. This is the first step in cognitive restructuring, a process in which you catch, examine, and replace negative thinking patterns.

So, familiarize yourself with the types of cognitive distortions listed above. Do any seem like thought patterns you engage in regularly? Here are some tips to help identify them:

Write down your negative thoughts. Use either a note app on your phone or a journal to keep track. Record the thought and how it made you feel. For example:

“After our conversation, I kept questioning whether my friend still liked me. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, he thinks I’m too much.’ This made me question whether I really am too much.”

This is an example of jumping to conclusions and labeling.

Look for patterns. Try journaling at least once a day and continue for several days or until you start to recognize clear patterns appear, and certain types of cognitive distortions affecting you more often than others. The more time you take to journal, the more insight you might gain into your own inner workings. You might decide to continue journaling your cognitive distortions even as you move on to the next steps.

Take a mindful approach. Mindfulness involves practicing nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts and feelings. Imagine each thought as an item moving along on a conveyor belt. Examine them slowly, one by one. One item might be the thought, “I’m a bad partner” or “I’m a failure.” Another item might be a mental image of people gossiping about you. Simply acknowledge each thought and then note how quickly it is replaced by the next thought.

Don’t beat yourself up. As you identify negative thoughts, avoid shaming yourself for having them in the first place. Instead of thinking, “It’s bad that I’m having this thought,” consider that many people wrestle with some degree of cognitive distortions. Allow yourself to have the thought, record it in your journal, and then move on.

Tip 2: Question your automatic thoughts

Once you’ve identified your cognitive distortions, you can start to examine them a little closer. You’ll likely find that many of your negative assumptions fall apart with a little scrutiny.

Is there supporting evidence for your negative thinking? This can help you adjust catastrophizing thoughts like, “This illness is fatal” or broad generalizations like “I always fail at this.”

Is there evidence to the contrary? Perhaps you are overlooking something positive—in other words, filtering out the good. If your partner is actively planning a vacation getaway for the two of you, they’re probably not thinking of ending the relationship.

Is ruminating on this helpful? You might think of more actionable steps you can take. For example, instead of assuming a person dislikes you, could you simply initiate a conversation or take steps to strengthen that relationship? Instead of catastrophizing about that weird sound your car is making, could you take it to mechanic?

Practice gratitude

If mental filtering is especially common for you, consider making gratitude a habit. By taking the time to identify even small reasons to be grateful, you’ll eventually have an easier time noticing the positives in life. This can counter mental filtering, which obscures the bright side.

Tip 3: Imagine alternate possibilities

When you’re faced with uncertainty, cognitive distortions like catastrophizing and jumping to conclusions fill in your knowledge gaps with worst-case scenarios. This leads you to fear situations that may never even come to pass. Instead, shift to possibilities that are equally likely, yet less stress-inducing.

Consider writing out the following possibilities in your journal, beside each distorted thought:

Replace a negative thought with a positive thought. Maybe you’re dreading going to a party. You might imagine yourself awkwardly standing in a corner, not talking to anyone. Try to replace that forecast with an opposite image: you making a new friend and laughing, having fun.

Shift to neutral. If a rosy outcome is too hard to imagine, think of a more neutral scenario. Envision yourself making some small talk at the party, enjoying a few snacks, and leaving without incident.

Reframe possible setbacks as opportunities. Instead of thinking, “This recipe is going to turn out horribly,” consider, “Even if it turns out bad, I can learn from my mistakes and improve in the future.”

Stick with it. Even if you can’t manage to fully reframe every line of thought, this can be an exercise in flexible thinking, which helps reduce polarized thinking. The future is always unpredictable, but you can exercise some control over your fears and expectations.

Tip 4: Practice distancing

Distancing is when you practice taking a “third-party” view of your emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. In other words, you imagine that they belong to someone else. In the process, you can gain a more grounded perspective and build self-compassion.

Reexamine your self-labeling habits. The next time you label yourself “dummy,” “loser,” or “incompetent,” pause and imagine what you’d say to someone else, like a friend, coworker, or loved one. You’d likely be more compassionate. Maybe you replace that insult with, “That’s OK, there’s always room to grow.”

Reassess your internal rules. Make a list of internal rules—“should” and “must” statements—that surface throughout the day, such as, “I must get an A in every class.” Again, what would you say to loved ones who set these high standards for themselves? Maybe you point out that a certain rule is unrealistic. Or perhaps you’d tell them it’s okay to be a little more flexible. “An A in every class is ideal, but a few Bs aren’t the end of the world.”

Be kind to yourself. Take a few minutes to try out this guided audio meditation: Being Kind to Yourself. The meditation focuses on easing negative self-talk as well as releasing physical tension.

Tip 5: Reduce distortions with physical activity

Physical activity is known to have all sorts of positive effects on well-being, such as raising self-esteem and increasing optimism. Being active can release endorphins, “feel good” chemicals, that increase energy levels, and, in the case of group exercise, can foster a sense of belonging. One 2022 study even found that an eight-week Pilates routine helped eliminate cognitive distortions and increased psychological endurance in victims of violence.

Do what you enjoy. Instead of forcing yourself to go to the gym, find an activity that you genuinely enjoy, whether that’s bike riding, hiking, or swimming. This makes it easier to stick to the routine and view it as a hobby rather than a chore.

Get active to quickly clear your head. Exercise has many long-term benefits, but some research suggests that even a single workout session—even just 10 to 30 minutes of moderate or high-intensity exercise—might be enough to elevate your mood and reduce stress. The next time you catch yourself ruminating on a negative thought, try taking a walk, jogging around the block, or dancing to your favorite song.

Be aware of cognitive distortions when setting goals. For example, remember to practice a little self-compassion if you don’t hit your step count one day. What would you say to a friend? “Try again next time! The important thing is you got in some activity.”

Tip 6: Rein in overall anxiety

Since cognitive distortions may surface in times of high stress, one way to tame them is to reduce your anxiety. A combination of practical stress management strategies and relaxation techniques can prove helpful.

Take self-care seriously. Getting enough sleep at night, eating a nutritious diet, and making time to nurture social connections can increase your overall well-being and reduce stress.

Explore different relaxation techniques. Some possibilities include deep breathing exercises, visualization, body scan meditation, yoga, and rhythmic forms of physical activity. Give each a try and reflect on how you feel after the activity. Stick with the techniques that seem to work the best for you.

[Read: Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief]

Cut back on unnecessary stressors. Substances like drugs and alcohol may seem to relax you in the moment, but really, they can amplify your anxiety later. Other people, including people you love, can also become stressors, especially if they’re overly negative or demanding. Learning to set appropriate boundaries can be key to reducing social stress.

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Getting professional help for cognitive distortions

If cognitive disorders seem difficult to manage on your own, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could be your next best step. A licensed therapist specializing in CBT will know how to guide you as you recognize irrational thoughts and take the power away from them. They’ll also provide tools to replace the distortions with suitable alternatives based on your personal history and thought patterns.

Give yourself time and patience as you undergo cognitive restructuring. Rewiring your thinking styles takes time, especially if those thought patterns have existed for years. With patience, determination, and potential professional support, you can end your distorted thinking and get more joy out of life.

Last updated or reviewed on April 22, 2024