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.
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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.
2. 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.
3. 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.”
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.
5. 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.
6. Jumping to conclusions
You base your decisions not on what someone says or does, but on what you believe they’re thinking. You believe you can read minds or anticipate reactions. You don’t ask what the other person thinks or feels.
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.
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.
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.
9. Polarized or black-and-white 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.
10. “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.
For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.
Andrea Wyssen. Relevance of the Thought–Shape Fusion Trait Questionnaire for healthy women and women presenting symptoms of eating disorders and mixed mental disorders. Clinical Psychology Psychotherapy. Link
David Berle. Does Emotional Reasoning Change During Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Anxiety? Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Link
Laura L. Fazakas-DeHoog. A Cognitive Distortions and Deficits Model of Suicide Ideation. Europe's Journal of Psychology. Link
Melina Andrea del Pozo. Cognitive Distortions in Anorexia Nervosa and Borderline Personality Disorder. Psychiatry Research. Link
Mohamad El Haj. False Memory in Alzheimer's Disease. Behavioral Neurology. Link
Olimpia Matarazzo. The Gambler's Fallacy in Problem and Non-Problem Gamblers. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Link
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. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.