What are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Distortions are exaggerated or irrational negative thought patterns that can influence your emotions. These cognitive distortions are commonly referred to as thought traps because they often have a habitual nature and are hard to break out of, especially in moments of distress. Cognitive distortions don't have a single root cause but are commonly associated with mental health struggles such as depression and anxiety along with exposure to traumatic events or abuse.


Common Thought Traps

1) Overgeneralization- broad statements based on incomplete evidence or applying the outcome of one event to other events. Words like, “always”, “never”, and “every” might be present. An example might be “This always happens every time”.

2) Filtering is when we focus on negative details and ignore/filter out positive ones. An example might be “How can I enjoy my life if my kids have problems” or “My whole day is ruined because my shirt was inside out”.

3) Personalization- taking things personally that aren't actually connected to us. This focuses on self-blame or even blaming others. That can often get in the way of finding out the real cause of an event or behavior.

4) All-or-Nothing Thinking- seeing only the extremes in a situation. Things are rarely completely horrible or absolutely perfect.

5) Discounting the Positive- dismissing positive experiences and insisting they don’t count. Similar to Filtering, discounting the positive is a failure to acknowledge one’s role in their success, sometimes even attributing it to luck or coincidence.

6) Should Statements- this focuses on pressure and expectations we set for ourselves that can lead to guilt and self-criticism when that expectation is not met.

7) Emotional Reasoning- turning our feelings into facts. How we feel is not always true. Just because we feel down in one moment doesn't mean we are worthless.

8) Catastrophizing or Magnification – sometimes, we might blow things out of proportion and find ourselves focusing heavily on the worst possible outcome. In this distortion, a minor negative event is exaggerated and perceived as being much more significant.

Addressing Cognitive Distortions

Working through thought traps might require a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) based strategy. CBT focuses on the here and now and works to understand our thought patterns in real-time. With this approach, a therapist might recommend four tools to break free of cognitive distortions- reframe, prove yourself wrong, counter thoughts, and thoughts aren't facts. Once we have identified our distortions, we can start to reframe our thoughts. Instead of saying “I can't do anything right” we might say “I messed up, but nobody is perfect”. Sometimes it's just not that easy, and we may really believe our thoughts. In this case, challenging our beliefs could be a useful tool. If we feel that no one cares about us, calling a friend might prove us wrong. Finding evidence that our distressing thoughts aren't the only reality is the key. Another useful tool could be to counter our negative thoughts by referring to affirmations or repeating a positive mantra. The point is to shift our thinking and occupy our minds with something positive. If you struggle to find a more reasonable thought to replace the distorted one, ask yourself what would you tell a friend in the same position having the same thought. Say it to yourself! Lastly, it is important to know that even though thoughts and feelings are valid, they are not always reality. Just because we might feel ugly or unwanted doesn't mean that's true, and most certainly doesn't mean that others view us the same way.

Breaking distorted cognitive patterns doesn’t happen overnight – it takes practice. However, with consistent therapy and practice, you become less prone to having distorted thoughts. Seek the help of a professional if you need it!

References and Resources

Blog with good tools on addressing Cognitive Distortion

Anxiety Canada (A breakdown of thought traps)

American Journal of Psychotherapy


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