Cognitive distortions are false thoughts or beliefs

Depending on how we interpret events, our minds can sometimes play tricks on us. They can convince us of things that aren’t true, even though they feel rational to us.

When these inaccurate beliefs influence our thoughts, emotions, and actions, we can feel anxious, stressed, angry, or depressed about ourselves (or the world around us). These faulty beliefs are known as cognitive distortions.

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What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Anyone can experience cognitive distortion, which the American Psychological Association defines as “faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception or belief.” Negativity is often the defining characteristic.

For some of us, distorted thinking is a momentary blip. We get upset when we fail a math test. We briefly reason that we’re bad at math, instead of realizing we need to study more. But we typically move on and try again.

For others, cognitive distortions are a pattern of thinking that interferes with their lives and relationships. In these cases, distorted thinking can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems such as misuse of substances.

The 10 Most Common Cognitive Distortions

Let’s review some common cognitive distortion examples. You might see your own thought patterns reflected here, or they may describe someone you know.

  1. Engaging in catastrophic thinking.

You to expect the worst outcome in any situation. You often find yourself thinking, “What if…?” If your child misses curfew, you imagine he’s been in a car accident. If your boss schedules a meeting, you worry you’ll be fired. And your thinking spirals from there: You may think of losing your child. Getting fired means you’ll become homeless.

Catastrophic thinking can lead to is closely related to and can be heavily influenced by depression and anxiety disorders. This type of thinking can lead to relationship straining behaviors or judgements. People engaging in catastrophic thinking might see everything as pointless.

  1. Discounting the positive.

When something goes right — say you get a promotion — you acknowledge it but refuse to take credit. Instead, you chalk it up to dumb luck or a mistake. Or, you receive many positive comments on an evaluation, but choose to focus on a single piece of negative feedback.

This kind of thinking can hurt a person’s sense of pride and self-esteem. Anxiety is associated with discounting positives.

  1. Emotional reasoning.

You rely on “gut” feelings over objective evidence to judge yourself and the world. For example, “I feel like a bad mother, therefore I must be a bad mother.”

This kind of thinking can be harmful as it may lead to irrational decision making and judgements. Eating disorders and other behavior changes may come from emotional reasoning.

  1. Labeling and mislabeling.

You often define yourself and others with negative labels. In assigning labels, you focus on one past behavior or event. Your co-worker is “lazy” because they came to work late. You’re “stupid” because you failed the math test. Labeling and mislabeling can damage a person’s self-esteem and their view of other people. This thinking can have effects similar to depression.

  1. Mental filtering.

You view yourself, your life, and your future through a negative lens. You ignore anything positive. Filtering can increase feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Mental filtering can be linked to depression or suicidal thoughts. People exhibiting mental filtering might isolate themselves from others.

  1. Jumping to conclusions.

You base your decisions not on what someone says or does, but on what you believe they’re thinking. You don’t ask what the other person thinks or feels.

Mind-reading is a kind of jumping to conclusions where you fill in the gaps of your knowledge by assuming someone else’s thoughts. You believe you can read minds or anticipate reactions. This assumption may stem from one instance of being correct that makes you believing you always know what others are really thinking.

Fortune-telling is another form of cognitive distortion related to jumping to conclusions. You insist you can predict the future, regardless of what you do. You’ll be famous without putting in the hard work. Or you’ll always be a failure, so hard work is a waste of time.

  1. Overgeneralization.

People who overgeneralize apply their experience from one event to another. If your marriage ended in divorce, you think you’re not worthy of love. As a result, you might conclude you should never date again. Overgeneralizing can lead to damaged self-esteem and world view.

  1. Personalization.

If people often tell you, “stop taking this so personally,” then you likely experience personalization. You blame yourself for things outside of your control. You falsely believe that everything that someone says or does is a direct reaction to you. Personalization can convince you that you are being targeted or excluded. It can also cause you to compare yourself to others.

  1. Black-and-white or polarized thinking.

This kind of thinking deals in extremes. People and situations are either great or terrible. You believe you’re either destined for success or failure. You don’t allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes.

  1. “Should” statements.

You have a list of rules for how people should and shouldn’t behave. Constantly blaming yourself or others for what “should” have been said or done (but wasn’t) can increase stress and anxiety. You will never be happy if you always focus on what “should” have been.

Challenging Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive behavioral therapy is widely used to help break the cycle of distorted thinking. A trained psychotherapist can work with you to retrain your brain to identify and challenge cognitive distortions using thought records, cognitive restructuring exercises, and behavioral exercises.

  • Identify the thought: Take a moment to examine and analyze your thought process that has led you to this conclusion. Do you have proof to support this thought? Are you drawing conclusions based on your feelings or on evidence? How might your own biases influence this conclusion?
  • Reframe the thought: Try approaching your situation from a different perspective. Perhaps imagine the best possible outcome versus the worst possible outcome, versus what is most likely to happen.
  • Consider why you think this way: Think about the conclusion you’ve made and if any of your preconceptions may have influenced this.
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy can help prevent cognitive distortions: Cognitive distortions are common and can be difficult to manage, however there are treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help. CBT is typically a short-term therapy solution that works to identify the troubling or traumatic situations in your life, increase your awareness of the thoughts and beliefs you hold regarding those situations as well as the negative or inaccurate thoughts surrounding them, and reshaping those thoughts to be more conducive to healthy thinking. This final step is the most difficult and can take time and practice to make your thoughts healthy and helpful.

For more information on behavioral health services, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.