Cognitive Distortions and Anxiety

While most people tend to have one or two distorted thought patterns, those with anxiety tend to relate to the 10 listed below. In his groundbreaking book, Feeling Good, Dr. Beck identified these distortions as the primary culprits in exacerbating anxiety and depression. This list has been used for decades (and still today) by therapists assisting clients in identifying areas where distorted thoughts contribute to an increase in anxiety. Patients generally identify 2 to 3 primary Cognitive Distortions (" stinking thinking").  Therapists can assist in working through the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to these faulty thought patterns.  

Take a moment to identify an area that you might want to work on.  Easy strategies to combat these distortions include doing a fact check 1) Do all the people I know really LABEL me as a loser? 2) Do I really know what my spouse is thinking through MIND READING?.  Fact checks nearly always contradict the distortions and can easily be replaced with more accurate, realistic thoughts.  Another strategy includes 1.writing out the Thought that comes to mind, 2.identifying the distortion and 3. writing out the opposite conclusion to the distortion. For example: Thought--"I didn't get the job after a great interview; I will never get a job.  Distortion-ALL or NOTHING THINKING.  Alternate thought: I will get a job when the time is right and as a result of continuing my efforts.

All of us get caught up in negative patterns of thinking when we are tired, stressed, or in a bad mood.  Many individuals are unable to stop repetitive negative thoughts without assistance.  If you or a loved one are suffering from chronic negative patterns of thinking, it may be helpful to seek the help of a trained mental health professional.  Tell yourself: Things will get better as I learn new ways of thinking and gain awareness about myself.


Cognitive Distortions

(Burns, 1989)

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: You look at thinks in absolute, black and white categories. For example, “I won’t fit in” or “I won’t know anyone at the party”.


2. Mental Filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives. For example, remembering only the person who didn’t acknowledge your hello as opposed to remember the dozens of people who did respond kindly.


3. Overgeneralization: You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. For example, “This always happens to me, nothing ever works out.”


4. Discounting the positive: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities don’t count. For example, “She only smiled at me because she felt it would be polite.”


5. Jumping to Conclusions: You conclude things are bad without any definite evidence. For example, “I know I am going to get in trouble because why else would my boss want to talk to me.” a) Mind reading: You assume that people are reacting negatively to you.

b) fortune-telling: You predict that things will turn out badly.



6. Magnification or minimization: You blow things way out of proportion or you shrink their importance. For example, “I was destroyed when those people saw me trip coming up the stairs.”


7. Emotional Reasoning: You reason from how you feel: “I feel like an idiot, so I must be one.”


8. “Should” statements: You criticize yourself or other people with “shoulds”, “shouldn’ts”, and “musts”.


9. Labeling: Instead of saying, “I made a mistake,” you tell yourself, “I am a jerk”, or a loser.


10. Blame: You blame yourself for something that you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that you contribute to a problem. For example, “I let the conversation get awkward.” 

Definitions of Cognitive Distortions

 1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black and white categories.  If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

2. OVERGENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

3. MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single nAlteegative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other.  In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusions. a. Mind Reading.  You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out. b. The FortuneTeller Error.  You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.

6. MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement). Or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections).  This is also called the “binocular trick.”

7. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are:  "I feel it, therefore it must be true."

8. SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything.  “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders.  The emotional consequence is guilt.  When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

9. LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of over-generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a damn louse.”  Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

10. PERSONALIZATION:  You see yourself as the cause of some negative event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

[From:Burns, David D.  Feeling Good.  Morrow, 1980]

Popular Tags

Loading Please wait...


Loading Please wait...