Cognitive Distortions and Thoughts in Depression

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Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thought patterns, beliefs, or perceptions that contribute to negative thinking. Everyone engages in such distortions from time to time, but when these patterns become persistent and excessive, they can contribute to mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and maladaptive behaviors.

This article discusses the effects of cognitive distortions and why they happen. It also covers some of the most common types of cognitive distortions and what you can do if you recognize this kind of thinking in yourself.

Cognitive Distortions and Mental Health

Conditions such as depression and anxiety can sometimes lead to habitual negative thoughts, but in many cases, depression actually is the result of cognitive distortions.

When bad things happen, we begin chastising ourselves with thoughts such as I'm no good, I'm a total failure or Nothing ever goes my way. Our feelings follow what we are thinking, and negative thoughts like these can ultimately contribute to symptoms of depression.

This concept is the guiding principle behind cognitive therapy, a type of psychotherapy developed by psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s. If we think something often enough, we begin to believe it's true and our feelings match what we are thinking about ourselves.

To manage depression, we must stop those automatic negative thoughts and replace them with more positive, truthful ones. By nipping these thoughts in the bud, we can sometimes halt depression before it even starts.

Why We Have Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions often stem from faulty ways of coping with stressful events. Sometimes these types of thinking can serve a purpose when we are faced with something difficult. They might reduce stress levels or protect self-esteem when they are used in the short term. 

However, using these types of distortions too much tends to be unhealthy. Since these thought patterns are often negative in nature, they can degrade mental well-being and contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. And when we fall back on these ways of thinking, they prevent us from developing more effective coping skills.

10 Common Cognitive Distortions

There are many different types of distortions that can affect your thinking. Learning more about some of the most commonly used ones may help you better recognize when you are engaging in this type of thinking.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking, also known as polarized or black-and-white thinking, involves interpreting everything in terms of two opposing extremes. This type of thinking is characterized by absolute terms like alwaysnever, and forever. Things are either this or that, black or white, great or terrible⁠—there is no in-betweens.

For example, John recently applied for a promotion in his firm. The job went to another employee with more experience. John wanted this job badly and now feels that he will never be promoted. He feels that he is a total failure in his career.

However, very few situations are ever this absolute. There are generally gray areas. The technique that you should apply here is to eliminate these absolute terms from your vocabulary, except for the cases where they truly apply. Look for a more accurate description of the situation.

A better way for John to cope with this disappointment would be to acknowledge that while he wanted the job, he might not yet have the experience and qualifications he needs. Reminding himself of his own talents would help him focus on developing his skills and preparing himself for upcoming opportunities.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is a type of cognitive distortion involves applying what happened in one situation to every subsequent event. When people overgeneralize, they take an isolated case and assume that all others are the same. Instead of considering the possibilities or focusing on what makes this situation different from the past, people overgeneralize and assume that things will play out in exactly the same way.

For example, Linda is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends sometimes ask her to come out for dinner and meet new people. Linda feels that it is useless to try to meet people. No one really could like her. People are all mean and superficial anyway.

Are people really all mean and superficial and could never like her? What about her friends who are trying to get her to go out? Obviously, she does have someone who cares about her.

The next time you catch yourself overgeneralizing, remind yourself that even though a group of people may share something in common, they are also separate and unique individuals.

No two people are exactly the same. There may be mean and superficial people in this world. There may even be people who dislike you. But, not every person will fit this description. By assuming that everyone doesn't like you, you are building a wall that will prevent you from having people who can support you.

Mental Filter

A mental filter is a distorted way of thinking by mentally singling out only the bad events in their lives and overlooking the positive ones. For example, Mary is having a bad day. As she drives home, a kind gentleman waves her to go ahead of him as she merges into traffic. Later in her trip, another driver cuts her off. She grumbles to herself that everyone is rude and insensitive. She is filtering out the positive interaction and amplifying the negative one.

Learn to look for that silver lining in every cloud. It's all about how you choose to let events affect you. Mary could have turned her whole day around if she had paid attention to that nice man who went out of his way to help her.

Disqualifying the Positive

Discounting the positive involves rejecting positive experiences, often believing that they don't count or that they were only due to chance. When good things happen, you attribute them to pure luck or to outside forces instead of taking credit for your own efforts.

For example, Rhonda just had her portrait made. Her friend tells her how beautiful she looks. Rhonda brushes aside the compliment by saying that the photographer must have touched up the picture. She never looks that good in real life, she thinks.

This type of thinking can lead to low self-esteem, so it is important to find ways to combat such negative thoughts. The next time someone compliments you, resist the little voice inside that says you don't deserve it. Just say "thank you" and smile. The more you do this, the easier it will become.

Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions involves making assumptions about what other people are thinking (mind reading) or what will happen in the future (fortune-telling). In both cases, you are reaching conclusions without actually having much, if any, information to back them up.

For example, Chuck is waiting for his date at a restaurant. She's now 20 minutes late. Chuck laments to himself that he must have done something wrong and now she has stood him up. Meanwhile, across town, his date is stuck in traffic.

Once again, we fall victim to our own insecurities. We expect the worst and begin preparing early for the disappointment. By the time we find out that all our fears were unfounded, we've worked ourselves into a frenzy, and for what?

Next time, do this, try to give the person the benefit of the doubt. You'll save yourself a lot of unnecessary worry. Instead of jumping to a conclusion based on limited information, give yourself time to learn more and ask questions in order to make more accurate judgments.

Magnification and Minimization

Also known as catastrophizing, this type of thinking involves either exaggerating or underestimating the likelihood or meaning of events. 

People who engage in this distortion minimize their successes and magnify their failures.

For example, Scott is playing football. He bungles a play that he's been practicing for weeks. He later scores the winning touchdown. His teammates compliment him. He tells them he should have played better; the touchdown was just dumb luck.

What can you do to stay away from this error and stop your negative thoughts? Remember the old saying, "He can't see the forest for the trees?" When one mistake bogs us down, we forget to look at the overall picture. Step back and look at the forest now and then. Overall, Scott played a good game. So what if he made a mistake?

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning means relying on how you feel about something to demonstrate the truth of your conclusions. For example, Laura looks around her untidy house and feels overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning. She feels that it's hopeless to even try to clean.

Laura has based her assessment of the situation on how it makes her feel not how it really is. It may make her feel bad to think of the large task ahead of her, but is it really hopeless? In reality, cleaning her house is a doable task. She just doesn't feel up to it. She has reached the conclusion that it is useless to try based on the fact that it overwhelms her.

When a situation feels overwhelming, try this to stop your negative thoughts: Break down the task into smaller ones. Then prioritize what is most important to you.

Now, do the first task on your list. Believe it or not, you will begin to feel better and ready for more. The important thing is to just do something towards your goal. No matter how small, it's a start and will break you out of feeling helpless.

Should Statements

Should statements are a way of thinking about situations in terms of what you or others "should" do. We all think things should be a certain way, but let's face it, they aren't.

For example, David is sitting in his doctor's waiting room. His doctor is running late. David sits stewing, thinking, "With how much I'm paying him, he should be on time. He ought to have more consideration." He ends up feeling bitter and resentful.

Concentrate on what you can change and if you can't change it, accept it as part of life and go on. Your mental health is more important than "the way things should be."

Labeling and Mislabeling

This type of cognitive distortion involves making extreme judgments based on a single example. As a result of these judgments, you might label yourself or others in a certain, often negative way.

For example, Donna just cheated on her diet. I'm a failure, she thinks. What Donna has done in our example is label herself as hopeless. She most likely will reason that since she can't lose weight, she may as well eat. She has now effectively trapped herself by living up to the label she placed on herself.

When we label ourselves, we set ourselves up to become whatever that label entails. This can just as easily work to our advantage.

Here's what Donna could have done to make labeling work in her favor. She could have considered the fact that up until now she has been strong. She could then forgive herself for only being human and acknowledge that she has been working hard to lose weight and has been succeeding. This is a temporary setback that she can overcome.

Overall, she is a strong person and has proven it by her successful weight loss. With this type of positive thinking, Donna will feel better and be back to work on her weight loss goals in no time.

Personalization

This distortion involves taking things personally or taking the blame for things that are not your responsibility. For example, Jean's son is doing poorly in school. She feels that she must be a bad mother. She feels that it's all her fault that he isn't studying.

In our example, Jean is taking all the responsibility for how her son is doing in school. She is failing to take into consideration that her son is an individual who is ultimately responsible for himself. She can do her best to guide him, but in the end, he controls his own actions.

Next time you find yourself doing this, ask yourself, "Would I take the credit if this person were doing something praiseworthy?" Chances are you'd say, "No, they accomplished that by themself." So, why blame yourself when they do something not so praiseworthy? Beating yourself up is not going to change their behavior. Only they can do that.

How to Cope With Cognitive Distortions

While cognitive distortions can be destructive, you can also learn to change your thinking. It takes time and practice, but with continued persistence, you can learn to shift into a more helpful, positive way of thinking.

Learn to Recognize Cognitive Distortions

If you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself, then you're halfway there. Here's a homework assignment for you: Over the next few weeks, monitor the self-defeating ways in which you respond to situations. Practice recognizing your automatic responses.

Using strategies such as mindfulness and journaling can help build greater self-awareness. Mindfulness teaches you to focus on the present moment, which can help you better see how your own thinking is affecting how you feel. Journaling can be useful for spotting patterns that might be contributing to feelings of anxiety or depression.

Reframe Your Thinking

Once you start to recognize when you are using a cognitive distortion, you can begin taking steps to reframe your thoughts. Cognitive reframing is a strategy that can help you change your mindset so that you look at events, situations, or relationships in a different way. For example, instead of imagining the worst or jumping to conclusions, you might reframe the situation by considering alternative explanations.

Get Professional Help

If you are struggling to deal with cognitive distortions that are affecting your mental health, it is important to talk to a mental health professional. A therapist can help you identify these distortions and work with you using cognitive behavioral techniques such as cognitive restructuring.

Your therapist can also help you develop new coping skills, practice relaxation techniques, and strengthen your relationships, all of which can play a part in improving your well-being.

A Word From Verywell

The solutions presented here are some of the common situations we find ourselves in. Take these as examples and create your own positive solutions to your negative thoughts. Recognizing that you do it is the first step. Then play devil's advocate and challenge yourself to find the positive. Turn your thoughts around and your moods will follow suit. Remember, you are what you think!

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4 Sources
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