10 Cognitive Distortions That Fuel Depression and Anxiety

cognitive distortions

Cognitive Distortions Revealed

By: 2SC Staff

You have probably heard of the term cognitive distortions at some point but what exactly does this phrase really mean? Moreover, how can having a cognitive distortion impact your mood? And how can faulty thinking contribute to depression and anxiety?

This brief article will explore the topic of cognitive distortions and offer 10 of the most common types you may be engaging in. At the end, an anonymous poll has been posted to help universalize the experience.

Cognitive Distortions Defined

A 25-cent definition of cognitive distortions is simply this: The act of the mind convincing oneself of something that simply isn’t true. The hallmark of a cognitive distortion is irrational thinking, blanketed in negativity.  

The end result of cognitive distortions can be engaging in toxic acts of self-sabotage. This kind of nasty thinking can become exacerbated during times of great stress. In the world of psychology, we call this a cognitive distortion. Pretty simple – huh? And FYI: when these distortions become overwhelming, they often lead to depression and anxiety.

Cognitive Distortions and Defense Mechanisms

Some believe that cognitive distortions are a kind of spin-off of Sigmund Freud’s defense mechanisms. More than simply the ego’s intent to decrease pain or increase pleasure, these distortions, when left unchecked, can become negatively hard wired into our thinking process. The byproduct is feeling downright miserable, with low self-esteem and self-worth.

A powerful book authored by David Burns, MD entitled, The Feeling Good Handbook discusses 10 specific styles of cognitive distortion that are amplified by stress. As a matter of full disclosure, the list presented here in large part has been synthesized from Dr. Burn’s book.

As you go through the distortions offered below, ask yourself if one or more of these thinking styles strikes a chord of familiarity. It might be helpful to bounce a few of these off of a close friend as a way of “checking yourself” and remaining objective.

Are you ready? Let’s jump right in!

cognitive distortions

1. All or Nothing Thinking

There is only good or bad, black or white with zero middle ground. An example might be thinking there is only one way to solve a given problem.

2. Overgeneralizing

One single negative circumstance becomes a life pattern. An example is getting a flat tire and thinking to yourself, “This always happens to me!”

3. Mental Filtering

A solitary negative detail becomes the primary focus of your attention, obscuring or blocking the bigger picture. Example: A one hour drive to work is ruined by a driver who early on cuts you off. You resign yourself to thinking the entire day is now going to be crappy.

4. Disqualifying the positive

A negative belief pattern that eclipses positive circumstances, thereby reducing any surface as insignificant all the while focusing on the negative. Example: A stranger smiles at you but you discount this fact, believing everyone thinks you are ugly.

5. Jumping to conclusions

Affirming a negative interpretation of yourself without supporting facts. You insist on buying into a strong “gut intuition”, which is little more than a projection of your feelings. Example: Your boss walked by you this morning without saying hello. You interpret this to mean that he/she is disappointed in you.

6. Magnification

This is when you make a mountain out of a molehill. You may exaggerate facts with the end result being a myopic vision of a given situation or scenario. Negative thinking permeates this kind of distortion and results in awfulizing.

7. Emotional reasoning

Living the assumption that your negative emotions are a true reflections of how things really are. Example: You have low expectations of yourself and think everyone thinks the same about you.

8. Should statements

A thought process influenced by a reward or punishment mentality where you insert the word should into the dynamic. Other insertion phrases include, “ought to” or “must”. Guilt and resentment typically are the end result of this kind of thinking. Example: I should have been friendlier in the interview – that’s why I did not get the job. This is also referred to as shoulding on yourself.

9. Labeling

An extreme form of over-generalizing. Examples include self-statements, such as, “I’m just a loser” and “I’m just freaking ugly”. The labels are often highly charged and emotionally loaded. When labeling yourself is at its worst, it leads to intrusive thoughts.

10. Personalization

Blaming yourself for a negative event that you had nothing absolutely nothing to do with. An example might be thinking: “Had I raised my son better, he wouldn’t be getting a divorce.”

Cognitive Distortions Video

The 10 cognitive distortions listed here are considered to be the “biggies” but is by no means a complete list. If you want to learn more about cognitive distortions, you might want to watch the video presented below offered by Dr. Todd Grande.


Final Thoughts

Many of our Chicago clients who come in for counseling and psychotherapy struggle with cognitive distortions. The good news is that psychotherapy does help with identifying and ultimately, reducing the kinds of toxic thought patterns discussed here.

If you are interested in learning more about how therapy can help you to create change in your life, please give us a call at 773-528-1777 or send us a confidential e-mail using our online contact form.

Be sure to vote in our poll below and share which type cognitive distortion you most identify with. No worries – the poll is completely anonymous!

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