In stressful times, it is easy to find yourself worrying. While everyone is guilty of this habit, worrying rarely solves anything and instead results in heightened anxiety. Worrying is often a result of irrational and exaggerated thoughts that distort our view of the world. We call these counterproductive thoughts cognitive distortions.
Psychologist Aaron T. Beck created the theory of cognitive distortions in the 1960s in which he identified common cognitive distortions that affect one’s emotions and behaviors. Since then, identifying and correcting these distortions has become an important aspect of a popular type of therapy called cognitive therapy. In this lesson, we will learn 10 common cognitive distortions and how to combat them to decrease stress and anxiety, think more rationally, and be more productive.
All-or-Nothing Thinking: This is the tendency to only see things in black and white rather than seeing an array of possibilities. This includes “always” and “never” statements. “I always get thought of last!” “My ex never listens to me!” People who engage in this type of thinking also have difficulty accepting partial success and instead consider anything other than complete success as a total failure. This way of thinking can make the problems in your life seem even bigger. To avoid the all-or-nothing trap, try to remember that very few things are absolute. Try to think of times when situations were not all-or-nothing. For example, instead of thinking “I always mess something up” try thinking of times when things went smoothly.
Over-generalization: This is the tendency to have one negative experience and then assume that it will become a never-ending pattern. For example, an over-generalizer may have an unpleasant experience at the doctor’s office and conclude that all doctors are unpleasant and going to see a doctor will always be a stressful experience. This could be self-damaging if the result is avoiding necessary situations, such as the doctor’s office. Everyone has negative experiences. To avoid overgeneralizing, one must believe that different outcomes are possible in the future. One may also think back to times when a negative experience did not have the same negative outcome the next time around.
Mental Filter: Those who use a mental filter tend to ignore the positive aspects of an experience and dwell on a negative detail. Even if a hundred things go right, one thing going wrong will taint the entire experience. For example, let’s say Karen is hosting a party and everyone is having fun, the decorations are perfect, and finger foods are delicious. When Karen opens the box to the cake she ordered from the bakery, she sees it’s the wrong cake. Karen can’t get over the mistake and believes the party was a disaster, even though her guests see it as a success. It is important to focus on the positives rather than the negatives. You may also ask yourself if you would think the same thing if your friend was in your shoes.
Disqualifying the Positive: With this cognitive distortion, the person can only accept the negative aspects of their performance and rejects positive experiences. For example, say Emily gets a new haircut. When she goes to work the next day, her co-worker says “Whoa, what happened to your hair? It looks terrible!” Then, when the secretary tells Karen that she likes her new haircut, Karen just thinks she is being nice. When people are upset, it can be difficult to hear anything that isn’t fueling the negativity. Positive comments or experiences are brushed off. Instead of getting caught up in a downward spiral of negative thoughts, try to evaluate things rationally. Emily has no evidence that the secretary didn’t genuinely like her haircut. By not getting caught up in the negative, one can enjoy the positives and feel better about oneself or the situation.
Jumping to conclusions: This is the tendency to quickly conclude, usually negative, without any evidence to back it up. After the conclusion is made, one typically finds supporting evidence and ignores any evidence to the contrary. For example, you wave at someone you know on campus and they don’t wave back. You may assume that they must not like you. However, perhaps they didn’t see you wave. Think before you jump to conclusions. Take a step back and ask yourself what you know about the situation. Are you thinking logically? Could there be other explanations?
Catastrophizing: This is exaggerating the importance of something to make it out to be far worse than it is. For example, Ellen may find a small, discolored spot on her skin and react “What if it’s cancer?” Catastrophizing can cause a sense of hopelessness or paralyze you from moving forward. When this happens, stop yourself and take a look back at what happened. Think of how the future could go better than you think it will. Perhaps Ellen’s spot on her skin is just a mosquito bite.
Emotional Reasoning: With emotional reasoning, we believe that our emotions reflect the way things are. An example is feeling anxious walking down the street and believing that it must be a sign that something bad is going to happen. It usually doesn’t matter if other people tell us otherwise, our emotions have a way of taking over our beliefs and thinking processes. It can be easy to listen to our emotions rather than look for facts. To combat emotional reasoning, pause and try to identify the true source of the emotion. Then accept that your emotions are not necessarily reflective of the current situation.
Should Statements: This is the process of thinking about what should and shouldn’t have. “I should have worked out more last week.” “I should not have acted so hastily.” This kind of thinking can result in guilt for making the wrong decision when it is too late to change anything. Other statements like “must” and “have to” are unhealthy ways of viewing situations as well. These directive statements make us feel pressured, resentful, and unmotivated. Try using mindfulness when you feel you’ve made the wrong decision. Instead of judging these “should” thoughts, accept them and let them go. You may also want to think about a close friend. Would you apply the same “should” statement to them?
Labeling: This cognitive distortion is a lot like extreme over-generalization of oneself. When an error is made, instead of describing the event as a mistake or bad judgment, one tends to assign oneself a label. For example, Ryan does poorly on his math test. Instead of evaluating the situation and realizing he should have studied more, Ryan declares himself stupid. It is important to remember that everyone fails every once in a while. While you may have failed at one attempt, this does not mean you are a failure. Try replacing these negative thoughts with positive ones and use failure as a learning experience. Think about what you can improve next time without dwelling on the current situation.
Personalization: Personalization is overestimating your responsibility in a negative external event. For instance, Stacy may feel that it is her fault that her son dropped out of college and it never would have happened had she been a better mother. Stacy is taking the blame for her son’s behaviors and decisions. Perhaps the event had nothing to do with Stacy at all. Fight this type of counterproductive thinking by focusing on the facts. Don’t place unnecessary blame on yourself and instead carefully evaluate the situation. Also, remember that finding someone or something to blame is dwelling on the situation rather than finding a solution.
Identifying these cognitive distortions gives you the power to change the way you think. After identifying the cognitive distortion, you may change your way of thinking by examining the evidence, talking to yourself the way you would a friend, thinking of alternatives, or asking others what they think. Combating cognitive distortions on your own is a great way to reduce your worrying or stress. Thinking more clearly and logically can also help you to be more productive, happier, and healthier.