15 Cognitive Distortions and How They Might Be Fuelling Your Anxiety
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate or false assumptions about ourselves and the world around us.
It can be difficult to recognise cognitive distortions and so we tend to believe they are true, which can sometimes fuel anxiety.
In this article, you’ll learn some of the common cognitive distortions and how you can re-frame them into more helpful, meaningful and realistic thoughts.
Even though cognitive distortions can seem confusing or confronting, it’s important to remember that we all experience them at times. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you if you notice yourself engaging in distorted thinking! Our brains like patterns and shortcuts and simple errors in thoughts are bound to occur now and then.
However, there are some simple ways you recognise and manage cognitive distortions so they’ll be less likely to negatively impact your mental health.
First, let’s take a look at how the concept of cognitive distortions came about.
In the 1970s, psychologist Aaron Beck proposed the theory of cognitive distortions. He noticed that many of his patients who experienced depression were relying on false assumptions and errors in thinking. He believed that if his patients could change those inaccurate thoughts (cognitive distortions) they would be able to change their symptoms of depression.
Beck’s student, Dr David Burns, continued the research on cognitive distortions and popularised the concept with his book called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, in which he shared common examples of cognitive distortions. Dr David Burns also did a TED talk called Feeling Good, in which he explained some great examples of distorted thinking and how he encouraged his clients to challenge those thoughts.
Let’s take a look at some common cognitive distortions and how they might be fuelling your anxiety. I’ll also share some simple tips on how to recognise and re-frame cognitive distortions!
With this type of cognitive distortion, you see certain things in black or white categories. Something is either good or bad, right or wrong; there’s no room for middle ground.
Some examples of all or nothing thinking include:
-I answered one question wrong, so I’m a failure
-I didn’t get the promotion, so I might as well quit my job
-I made a mistake because I’m a bad person
-I missed one gym session, so I’ll give up on exercise for the week
All-or-nothing thinking tends to be extreme and as a result, it can stimulate anxiety. Looking at yourself in black or white terms can cultivate low self-esteem (because your standards are so high – you’re either “perfect” or a “failure”) and fears of not being good enough.
Tips for managing all-or-nothing thinking
Try asking yourself these questions:
-Am I being too inflexible in my thinking?
-Is there a middle ground that might be more appropriate?
-Is there a less extreme way I can think about this?
-How can I practice implementing a middle ground?
Let’s imagine you’ve just sat down at work and your computer won’t turn on. You think “well, this is just typical. Technology never works right for me.” Rather than recognising that just one computer isn’t working, you make the claim that all technology doesn’t work for you.
Overgeneralisation involves seeing a constant, negative and never-ending pattern as a result of one event. It can cause you to feel hopeless and might stop you from trying to learn and grow.
Here are some examples:
-My boyfriend broke up with me. No one will ever love me.
-I didn’t get a good mark on my exam. I’ll never do well in this class!
-I bought one plant and it died. I won’t ever have a nice garden because everything will die.
Tips for managing overgeneralisations
Notice when you’ve made an overgeneralisation and ask yourself – is it actually true?
Try re-framing your thought into something more positive or helpful. For example
“My boyfriend broke up with me. No one will ever love me” could become “My boyfriend broke up with me, but there are people in my life who love me”.
Try to treat events in isolation – remind yourself that just because something happened once, it doesn’t mean it will happen again.
3: Mental filtering
With this type of cognitive distortion, you ignore all the positive aspects of a situation and focus on the one negative aspect of the situation.
For example, if you receive feedback at work which says you’re a great team player, you have wonderful initiative, you have creative ideas and you could work on being more punctual, you might focus solely on the fact that your boss said you should be more punctual and ignore all the other positive feedback.
Tips for managing mental filtering
Try to value the positive aspects as much as you value the negative aspects. Rather than just re-reading the one critique in your feedback, re-read the entire feedback and reflect on the positives, too. It might even help to make a list of all the feedback points yourself, so you can practice focusing on the positives.
4: Disqualifying the positive
This cognitive distortion is similar to mental filtering. It’s called disqualifying the positive and it involves rejecting positive things.
Here are some examples:
-You receive a compliment and tell yourself the person didn’t really mean the nice thing they said
-You think someone is only being nice to you because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, not because they actually like you and enjoy spending time with you
Rather than accepting positivity, you look for reasons to discount it. This can contribute to low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness.
Tips for managing disqualifying the positive
Practice receiving compliments and positive feedback. Rather than arguing with positive sentiments, try just saying thank you. It might feel really strange at first, but try to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. When you give someone a compliment, it’s nice to see them accept that compliment. It might also help to actually try giving out genuine compliments to other people to see what their reactions look like from your perspective. That way, you’ll know what it feels like to be both giving and receiving a compliment.
5: Jumping to conclusions (mind-reading)
When you jump to a conclusion via mind-reading, you assume that you know what someone else is thinking.
I personally have quite a tendency to do this! When I’m spending time with someone who seems distracted, annoyed, distant, or uninterested, I usually assume it’s something to do with me - that I said something silly or that I’m not extroverted/interesting/fun enough. I automatically jump to the conclusion that I’m at fault somehow (and then I’ll usually feel bad about myself). I forget to acknowledge that their mood might not actually have anything to do with me.
Mind-reading can trigger feelings of stress, sadness and shame – you might start worrying endlessly about what other people think, stop spending as much time with other people and feel like you’re not good enough.
Tips for managing mind-reading
Ask yourself if you actually know for sure what someone else is thinking. It can be interesting to realise how often you might be mind-reading (inaccurately)!
6: Jumping to conclusions (fortune-telling)
Another type of jumping to conclusions is fortune telling, which involves making predictions that things will turn out badly based on little evidence (and then completely believing in those predictions).
For example, you might be feeling down one night and think “when I wake up in the morning I’m going to feel even worse.”
However, you don’t really know for sure that you’ll feel worse.
Sometimes, this type of cognitive distortion can actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you feel a bit down and then tell yourself over and over that you’ll wake up feeling worse in the morning, you might feel stressed and not sleep well. You might actually wake up feeling a bit worse because you’ve spent the whole night telling yourself that’s what would happen!
Tips for managing fortune-telling
It can be helpful to gently challenge the cognitive distortion and ask yourself:
“Do I actually know this for sure? Is there a more helpful way to think about this?”
With this type of cognitive distortion, you might focus on your flaws and mistakes and blow them out of proportion.
For example, imagine you’ve invited some friends around for dinner and you’ve made a beautiful meal from scratch and a delicious dessert. When you prepare to add some fresh blueberries to the dessert, you realise you were actually supposed to get raspberries and when you taste the dessert, the flavours don’t quite match.
Even though everyone compliments you on all the wonderful things you cooked and tell you the dessert is still delicious, all you can think about is how annoyed you are about not reading the recipe properly and getting the wrong berries.
You’ve magnified a small mistake and essentially, made a mountain out of a molehill.
Tips for managing magnification
Try asking yourself if the problem, flaw, or mistake will matter in 5 years’ time? Sometimes, this can help to put things back in perspective.
8: Emotional reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when you incorrectly assume that a negative feeling reflects something true.
-feel jealous and insecure and start to think your boyfriend is cheating on you, even though there aren’t any actual facts to support that
-feel lonely and decide that no one really loves you wants to be around you
-feel frightened of a situation and therefore assume that the situation is dangerous.
Tips for managing emotional reasoning
It can be great to listen intuitively to emotions, but try not to always believe them fully without exploring them and finding evidence to support them.
-Be mindful of your emotions, without judgement
-Ask yourself if there is evidence to support the emotion
-Remember that emotions can change (sometimes, quickly)
9: “Should” statements
A “should” statement is a pessimistic view of yourself which makes you feel more hopeless about your situation. I want to actually challenge you to notice this cognitive distortion for yourself. Really try to notice when you think or say the word “should” and also pay attention to how you feel afterwards.
Notice when it’s helpful and notice when it’s making you feel like you’re not good enough, or if it’s creating stress or shame or guilt. And if the “should” statement isn’t helpful, that’s when you can challenge it or re-frame it.
Tips for managing “should” statements
Try to re-frame “should” statements into more positive, helpful and self-compassionate thoughts. For example, “I should stop feeling so stressed” could become “I am feeling stressed at the moment, and that’s okay – I know it will pass in time”.
“I should be more assertive rather than letting people walk all over me” could become “I will learn more about assertiveness so I can implement it better”.
Labelling involves naming yourself or someone else based on their behaviour.
For example, you might label yourself as a fool because you forgot to organise a gift for your friend’s birthday. You might label yourself as a loser because you didn’t get your work done on time.
You might also label other people based on their behaviour at a given time. You might see your boss looking fed up and snappy and label them as a jerk.
With this type of cognitive distortion, you forget that behaviours don’t always reflect the complex nature of human beings. That no human being is ever just one thing, like a jerk, or a fool, or a loser. Everyone is so much more than a label.
Tips for managing labelling
Whenever you notice yourself using labels, encourage yourself to look beyond that. Gently challenge the label by reminding yourself that nobody is ever just one thing.
Have you ever noticed yourself saying “it’s all my fault!” – even when it’s not all your fault?
Personalisation happens when you hold yourself accountable for something that isn’t completely in your control. When something doesn’t work out, you take the blame - irrelevant of whether anyone or anything else played a role.
This type of cognitive distortion can create stress and resentment because you feel like you shoulder the blame and try to fix things, knowing that it wasn’t really all your fault in the first place.
Tips for managing personalisation
It can help to acknowledge that things are rarely just one person’s fault. Circumstances, other people and unexpected things can all play roles. Own up to the role you played, but try not to take complete ownership for things that aren’t your responsibility.
Blame happens when you hold someone else accountable for something that isn’t completely in their control (it’s like personalisation but the blame is directed externally, rather than internally).
Rather than recognising your role, you lay all the blame on someone (or something) else.
Tips for managing blame
Practice recognising that blame doesn’t always fall on one person’s shoulders and try to take responsibility for whatever role you may have played. Apologise, look for solutions, forgive and move forward as best you can.
13: Always being right
This cognitive distortion involves actively trying to prove yourself to be right and prioritising this above anything else (including finding out the actual truth or showing compassion for someone else’s feelings).
How to manage always being right
Remind yourself that everyone is allowed to make mistakes. No one is perfect! It might take some time to feel comfortable with this, but try to look for opportunities to grow and learn, rather than just be “right”.
14: Magical thinking
This cognitive distortion involves believing that the course of events in the world depends on your actions and thoughts.
For example, you might think that:
-eating a certain type of food before a sports game will secure the win
-wearing a particular dress means a romantic date will go well
-losing a certain amount of weight will result in a promotion at work
Magical thinking can become a concern when it interferes with daily functioning. For example, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder may engage in rituals that give them a sense of control over other events. For example, a person with OCD may feel that washing their hands a certain number of times will protect a loved one from harm.
Tips for managing magical thinking
It can be important to recognise that magical thinking isn’t always based on reality and that when it starts to interfere with daily life, it can become a concern.
15: Underestimating your ability to cope
When you are faced with a challenge, you might start to doubt yourself and underestimate your ability to cope. This can cause you to avoid certain experiences, fear change and hold yourself back from growth.
-I won’t be able to lead a team at work. I have no idea why the boss wants to promote me!
-I’m not strong enough to handle this situation
-I can’t face my fears because I won’t be able to cope
How to manage underestimating your ability to cope
It can be helpful to use positive, supportive and realistic affirmations to encourage yourself through challenges. For example, “I am resilient enough to cope with this situation” or “I am open to growth and change”.
Sometimes, it can be tricky to figure out helpful and effective affirmations (especially when you’re stuck in a cognitive distortion), which is why I created a beautiful free print-out of all my favourite affirmations! If you scroll down a little further, you’ll see where to pop in your email address so I can send these affirmations straight to your inbox.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about cognitive distortions and simple tips to manage them better. If you’re feeling a bit stuck, try writing down some of your common thoughts and see if the cognitive distortions apply to any of them.
Curious to learn more about cognitive distortions and how I’ve experienced them personally? Be sure to check out episode 182 (Cognitive Distortions, Part One) and episode 183 (Cognitive Distortions, Part Two) of The Mindful Kind podcast . You’ll discover interesting stories and extra examples, deeper explanations and more tips for re-framing cognitive distortions.
Don’t forget to grab your beautiful affirmations print-out below!