Cognitive Distortions of Magnification and Minimization

When you magnify the negative and minimize the positive in your life

Your cognitive distortions, or unreasonable and/or inaccurate ways of thinking, can contribute to your or your loved one's panic disorder. Cognitive therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps patients understand the thoughts and feelings that influence their behavior. In short, it theorizes that you are what you think, and as such, negative thinking patterns, known as cognitive distortions, contribute to your symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Learn more about a type of cognitive distortion called magnification and minimization, and how it relates specifically to panic disorder.

Defining Magnification and Minimization

When thinking with the cognitive distortion known as magnification and minimization, one of two things happens: the importance of insignificant events—like a mistake—is exaggerated or the importance of something significant, such as a personal achievement, is lessened. In other words, a person’s problems are blown out proportion, while the positive aspects of their lives are ignored.

People prone to panic attacks often fall experience this cognitive distortion, which magnifies fears and maladaptive behaviors, while minimizing their ability to cope.

Below are two examples of magnification and minimization, followed by ways to combat this faulty thinking pattern.

Example One

Kim had rehearsed a speech for her sister’s wedding. When it came time to make her toast, though, Kim blundered a couple of words. She quickly regained control and ended up giving a moving and heartfelt toast. Afterward, many people complimented her on her speech. However, Kim complained that she was embarrassed by her slip-ups and felt she'd ultimately ruined this special occasion for her sister.​

Kim is magnifying her flaws and minimizing her accomplishment. If Kim were thinking more realistically, she would recognize that most people enjoyed her speech and didn't even notice the small imperfections. Her mistakes actually may have made her toast sound even more genuine and sincere. Kim likely missed out on the fun of this wonderful event by focusing too much on the few errors that occurred in her speech. 

Example Two

Alex has panic disorder with agoraphobia. He displays many avoidance behaviors but is able to go to the store every week. While on a recent trip to the grocery store, Alex got into a small fender bender in the parking lot. He had accidentally backed up into another car, but neither car had any damage. The owner of the other car was very understanding and told Alex not to worry about it. Alex was so upset by the incident that he was barely able to drive himself home. For the next few days, he went over the scene many times in his head. Alex’s anxiety over the situation continued to escalate, and he concluded that he could no longer take himself to the store.

Alex’s fears and anxiety became worse as he continued to magnify the accident. Certainly, it can be anxiety-provoking to get into even the smallest of accidents. However, Alex may have felt better if he considered the positives of the situation instead of minimizing them. No one was hurt and the other driver did not even think the accident was substantial enough to pursue damages. Unless he stops expanding his fearful thoughts about the situation, Alex’s panic symptoms and worries will only continue to escalate.

A Word From Verywell

Become aware of when you are magnifying the negative and minimizing the positive. Are you making a mountain out of a molehill? Consider utilizing a panic diary to track how these thoughts contribute to symptoms of panic disorder. Start by making a column and writing down the good and the bad of any situation. It can be difficult to notice at first, but even many bad situations can have a silver lining. Also, try to keep in mind that no one is perfect. Don’t let your small mistakes or flaws overshadow all of your talents and achievements, and the beauty and specialness of simply being you.

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Article Sources

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  • Burns, D.D. “When Panic Attacks: The New Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life,” Broadway Books: New York, 2007.

  • Burns, D. D. “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,” Avon Books: New York, 2008.