Depression and Cognitive Distortions

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Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which came first, the depression symptoms or the pessimistic thoughts?

In many cases, depression actually is the result of habitual negative thoughts, called 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 send us spiraling down into 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.


Cognitive therapy is directed at 10 common cognitive distortions, or faulty thought patterns, that send us into depression. See if you recognize yourself in any of these.

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: 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.
  2. Overgeneralization: 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 that is it useless to try to meet people. No one really could like her. People are all mean and superficial anyway.
  3. Mental Filter: 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 there are nothing but rude and insensitive people in her city.
  4. Disqualifying the Positive: 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.
  5. Jumping to Conclusions: 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.
  6. Magnification and Minimization: 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.
  7. Emotional Reasoning: 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.
  8. Should Statements: 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.
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling: Donna just cheated on her diet. I'm a fat, lazy pig, she thinks.
  10. Personalization: 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.

How to Cope

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.

Now, we will take each of the above cognitive distortions and discuss some powerful coping strategies that will help you dispel the blues before they even start.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

This type of thinking is characterized by absolute terms like alwaysnever, and forever. 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.

Here's an example of self-talk that John could have used to cope with not getting that promotion: "I wanted this job a lot, but it went to someone with more experience. This is disappointing to me, but it doesn't mean I'm not a good employee. Other opportunities will be available in the future. I'll keep working on my skills so that I'll be ready for them when they arrive. This one setback does not mean my career is over. Overall, I have excelled in my work."


When one overgeneralizes, one takes an isolated case or cases and assumes that all others are the same. 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 what you crave the most — friendship.

Mental Filter

When a person falls victim to mental filters they are mentally singling out only the bad events in their lives and overlooking the positive. 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

Those of us who become depressed are masters at taking the good in a situation and turning it into a negative. Part of this comes from a tendency to have low self-esteem. We feel like we just don't deserve it. How to turn this around is simple.

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

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: Give the person the benefit of the doubt. You'll save yourself a lot of unnecessary worry. If your fears have some basis in reality, however, drop that person from your life like a hot potato.

Magnification and Minimization

Have you ever looked through a telescope from the wrong direction? Everything looks tinier than it really is. When you look through the correct end, everything looks larger.

People who fall into the magnification/minimization trap look at all their successes through the wrong end of the telescope and their failures through the correct end.

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

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

We all think things should be a certain way, but let's face it, they aren't.

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

What Donna has done in our example is label herself as lazy and 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.


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 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.

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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  1. Rnic K, Dozois DJ, Martin RA. Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression. Eur J Psychol. 2016;12(3):348-362. doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i3.1118

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