The Links Between Cognitive Distortions, Anxiety, and Stress

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Cognitive distortions can cause anxiety and stress. However, stress and anxiety can also be symptoms and expressions of cognitive distortions. These thinking errors can influence how you see situations, often for the worse. When you don't see a situation clearly, it can have a negative impact on your mood and contribute to feelings of anxiety.

Being able to identify these thought patterns is the first step in redirecting them to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. This article discusses cognitive distortions, how they create anxiety and stress, and some of the most common types of thinking errors.

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions are systematic ways that people twist and distort information from the environment. These biases often reinforce negative thought patterns and can lead to increased anxiety and difficulty managing everyday stress.

The concept of cognitive distortions was first introduced in the 1960s by psychologist Aaron T. Beck. Since then, addressing and correcting these distortions has become a primary focus of different forms of cognitive therapy.

Recap

Most people use at least of few of these regularly. Cognitive-behavioral therapy seeks to identify and correct these distorted ways of thinking

Cognitive Distortions and Anxiety

Cognitive distortions help fuel anxious thoughts in a variety of ways. When these distortions lead to negative thinking, they can influence how people see themselves and others. They also affect how people feel about the future. 

Distorted thinking can do this by causing you to believe negative things about yourself or the world. While these distortions happen to everyone from time to time, they are much more common in people who have anxiety disorders. 

While all people have these thoughts to some degree, some people can see them for what they are—just thoughts. They may dispute them with other ideas or counter them with more positive thoughts. 

When these thoughts are treated as facts, they begin to have detrimental effects of mood and anxiety levels.

Research suggests, for example, that people with social anxiety disorder experience distortions related to how they evaluate social information. Such distortions contribute to increases in anxiety.

Studies have found an association between anxiety and cognitive distortions in children and teens. Cognitive distortions have also been shown to contribute to increased hyperactivity symptoms and other behavioral issues in children.

Recap

When people tend to interpret ambiguous information negatively, it can contribute to feelings of anxiety and other problems. Understanding some of the cognitive distortions that contribute to anxious thoughts may help people change some of these problematic ways of thinking.

Cognitive Distortions and Stress

There is a bidirectional relationship between cognitive distortions and stress. People who experience these distortions tend to feel more stressed, often due to their negative interpretations and predictions. But stress can also increase the risk that a person might experience these cognitive distortions.

While the exact causes of cognitive distortions are not entirely clear, research suggests that they are connected to stressful early life experiences.

Children who are exposed to greater adversity early in life have a higher risk of developing these distortions. This might explain why some people who have endured hardships tend to interpret ambiguous events with a negative bias.

Psychologist Aaron Beck suggested that these distortions are more likely to occur when people are under greater stress. Because of this, people are particularly vulnerable to negative or dysfunctional thinking patterns when they are coping with some type of emotional stress. This combination of distorted thinking and high-stress levels may then lead to other psychological problems, such as anxiety or depression.

Common Cognitive Distortions

There are a number of common cognitive distortions that can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Most people experience some of these from time to time. However, if you find yourself engaging in this type of thinking frequently, you may want to look for ways to change your thinking patterns to help minimize stress.

Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing, or catastrophic thinking, is involves expecting the worst-case scenario or outcome to occur, no matter how irrational or unlikely it may be. When you catastrophize, you also believe that if this outcome transpires, you won't be able to handle it.

Catastrophizing can be a result of or cause of anxiety and depression. For example, after a presentation doesn't go as smoothly as hoped, catastrophizing might lead you to immediately assume that you will be fired and that you will eventually lose your house. Rather than look at the situation more rationally, these fears lead to serious feelings of anxiety.

This pattern of thinking can be destructive because this unnecessary and persistent worry can lead to heightened anxiety and depression.

Arbitrary Inference

Arbitrary inference, also known as jumping to conclusions, involves drawing conclusions without sufficient evidence. In some cases, people reach conclusions without any evidence at all.

Instead of looking at all of the available evidence, you might only look at facts that back up your immediate assumptions. It is common among people who have social anxiety disorder and may happen more frequently in situations where people need to make quick judgments. Two common types of arbitrary inference are mind reading and fortune telling:

Mind Reading

Mind-reading is about untested negative assumptions about people. You believe that you know what others are thinking without checking to see whether your impressions are correct.

Here are a few common examples of mind reading:

  • You assume people are focused only on that one insecurity you have with your body
  • You assume nobody will like an article you just wrote
  • You assume that the client won't work with you before you even send an offer

In each case, you assume that you know what the other person is thinking. In many cases, such mind-reading is based on little or no information.

Fortune Telling

Fortune-telling involves assuming that you can predict what will happen in a situation. In this case, you assume that the situation will turn out badly, no matter what you do.

One example of fortune-telling is a woman predicting she will never find love or based only on the fact that she hasn't found it yet. There is no way for her to know how her life will turn out, but she sees this prediction as fact rather than one of several possible outcomes.

Personalization

As the name implies, this distortion is where you blame yourself for a negative outcome that was not actually your fault or within your control.

For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused everyone to have a terrible time. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Personalization leads to people taking on blame and feelings of guilt for things they were not responsible for. It can also cause anxiety when people think they should be able to do something to change the outcome, even though it is often out of their hands.

Selective Abstraction

This type of cognitive distortion involves magnifying negative information while dismissing positive information. It contributes to anxiety by creating low expectations about the future. Instead of feeling capable and positive about succeeding, this distortion causes you to see success as a fluke. 

Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous thinking is also known as "all-or-nothing thinking" or “black-and-white thinking." This type of distortion happens when you view yourself and situations in extremes rather than on a continuum. You believe you are either perfect or a total failure—there is no middle ground.

Some common signs of all-or-nothing thinking include frequently qualifying statements with words like "always" or "never." Because this distortion makes it seem like events are always more extreme than they are, it can make even relatively small stressors seem much more serious than they really are.

Overgeneralization

This is a sometimes subtle distortion that occurs when you take a single incident or piece of evidence and come to a general conclusion. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again.

Overgeneralizing statements also often include the words “always,” “never,” “every,” or “all.” For instance, if you get a poor grade on one paper in one semester and you think, "I'm a horrible student; I'll never get into college."

"Should" Statements

With this cognitive distortion, you try to motivate yourself and push yourself into shape—mentally and physically—by using "should" statements. You think in terms of how you, others, or the world "should" be.

These statements can become rigid rules that control your life, often in negative ways.

When you direct these statements to yourself, you set yourself up for feelings of guilt and shame. When you cling too tightly to your "should" statement about others, you are generally disappointed by their failure to meet your expectations. This disappointment can lead to feelings of anger and resentment.

How to Counteract Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions can contribute to negative thinking and psychological distress. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to help change these patterns.

  • Identify distorted thinking: The first step is to be aware of when you have distorted thoughts. This can be difficult because cognitive distortions can feel very real and believable. Try to catch yourself in the moment and question your thinking.
  • Challenge cognitive distortions: Once you’ve identified a cognitive distortion, it’s essential to challenge it. This means looking at the evidence for and against your thoughts. For example, if you’re having a thought like “I’m such a failure,” ask yourself what evidence there is to support this. Are there any times when you have been successful?
  • Change cognitive distortions: After you’ve challenged your cognitive distortion, it’s time to change it. This means coming up with a more realistic and balanced way of thinking. For example, instead of thinking, “I’m such a failure,” you could tell yourself, “I had a setback, but that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. I can do better next time.”
  • Practice cognitive restructuring: Cognitive restructuring, also known as cognitive reframing, is a technique that can be used to replace these faulty thought patterns with more accurate, helpful, and positive ways of thinking.
  • Learn from cognitive distortions: Every time you catch yourself in a cognitive distortion, use it as an opportunity to grow and learn. This means that you can take the opportunity to challenge and change your thinking.

Cognitive distortions don’t have to be a negative part of your life. When you do notice them, try to think of them as information you can use to help you learn more about yourself. You can use them as a chance to improve your thinking and become a better version of yourself.

A Word From Verywell

While cognitive distortions can be troubling, it is important to remember that they are normal and happen to everyone. Being more aware of them, however, can help you find ways to replace them with more helpful thinking.

Even if you are not struggling with depression, anxiety, or another serious mental health issue, it doesn’t hurt to evaluate your own thoughts every now and then. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety?

    Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of psychotherapy that helps people change their thinking and behavior patterns in order to relieve anxiety. It works by helping people identify distorted thoughts and replace them with more helpful, realistic, and positive ones. CBT is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and panic disorder (PD).

  • How do you help someone with anxiety and cognitive distortions?

    Let them know that you're there for them and willing to listen. It can be helpful to have a conversation about anxiety and cognitive distortions in general, rather than focusing on their specific situation. This can help them feel more comfortable talking about their thoughts and feelings. Also, encourage them to seek professional help. A therapist specializing in CBT can help them identify and change distorted thinking patterns.

  • What cognitive errors are associated with social anxiety?

    Several cognitive errors are associated with social anxiety. Socially anxious people tend to incorrectly believe that others are judging them and that they are not good enough. They also overestimate the risk that bad things will happen in social situations yet underestimate their own ability to cope.

    Research suggests that mental filtering, overgeneralization, and personalization can also contribute to depressive symptoms in people with social anxiety.

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