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There are times when all of us have unfounded thoughts about ourselves, other people or a situation, for example when a family member is late home. Our thoughts race to all the negative things that could have happened; they have been involved in an accident or some other form of disaster has happened. Our minds can fixate on these irrational images rather than the most likely explanation that they have simply missed their train. It is not uncommon for our minds to occasionally wander into a realm of worst-case scenarios.
Studies have shown that up to 70 per cent of our thoughts are negative; however, when these negative thoughts become patterns or habitual, making us exaggerate or inaccurately perceive reality in an unhealthy way, this can be damaging to our mental health, relationships and wellbeing.
Psychologists use the term “cognitive distortions” to describe these irrational, exaggerated thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality, usually in a negative way.
What are cognitive distortions?
Cognitive means conscious intellectual activity; in other words, our thoughts or thinking. Distortion is the act of twisting or altering something out of its true, natural or original state. Cognitive distortions are consistent unhelpful, unrealistic or irrational thoughts, or errors in our thinking; the way that we are thinking about something doesn’t match up with the reality of what is happening.
Cognitive distortions were first noted by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Beck originally described it as “selective abstraction”. It describes our tendency to focus on one detail, often taken out of context, and ignore other more important parts of an experience. In his research with depressed patients he hypothesised that changing their thinking would change their symptoms.
David Burns, an early student of Aaron Beck, and now an Adjunct Clinical Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, helped to popularise the approach to treating depression by focusing on identifying, correcting and replacing distorted systems and thinking patterns.
Anyone can experience cognitive distortion. For some of us, distorted thinking is a fleeting glitch; for example, if we didn’t get that job it is because we can’t do anything right or that we are not good enough, rather than another candidate was more suitable for the position. However, we usually get over it quite quickly and try again. For others, cognitive distortions are a pattern of thinking that interferes with their lives. When these inaccurate beliefs influence a person’s thoughts, emotions and actions, they can feel anxious, stressed, angry or depressed about themselves, or about the world around them.
For many of these people, cognitive distortion occurs as automatic thoughts – they are so habitual that the thinker often doesn’t realise that they have the ability to change them, and they grow to believe that’s just the way things are. Often in these cases, distorted thinking can lead to chronic anxiety, depression and behavioural issues such as misuse of substances. If left unchecked, these automatic thought patterns can become deep-rooted and may negatively influence the rational, logical way a person makes decisions.
Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions, telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves by playing broken records.
How do cognitive distortions develop?
It is thought that cognitive distortions develop over time. Cognitive distortions are part of a complex system that is intertwined with our thoughts, behaviours and emotions. There isn’t one underlying reason which is the cause.
It is known that cognitive distortions are more prevalent in those who suffer from depression, anxiety or other severe mental illnesses. However, there is little evidence to suggest that cognitive distortions are caused by any of these conditions. Rather, it is often an associated disorder.
One of the triggers that cause a person to be trapped in these distorted thoughts can be a downward depressive spiral. A downward spiral is defined as a situation with a series of negative thoughts, emotions and actions that continuously feeds back into itself, causing the situation to become progressively worse.
Stages of the depression spiral that can lead to depression spiralling out of control and can trigger cognitive distortions include:
- Negative experience(s)
- Suppressing emotions
- Repetitive negative thinking
- Avoidance behaviours
When a person begins to spiral, negative thoughts are usually at its core. These automatic negative thoughts distort their perception of reality and their thoughts begin to spiral negatively out of control.
Individuals living with anxiety disorders often struggle with more cognitive distortions than those without anxiety. Typically, many will experience cognitive distortions related to threat and danger.
Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience cognitive distortions that have been shaped by the traumatic event they experienced or others’ reactions to their trauma. PTSD can create negative beliefs about one’s self and the world.
Those who struggle with eating disorders (ED) also experience frequent cognitive distortions related to food, body image and self-esteem. These include a set of dysfunctional self-worth beliefs that impact their ability to care for themselves appropriately.
Individuals who have social anxiety disorder (SAD) and are anxious in social environments often have some distorted thoughts and beliefs regarding themselves and ways others judge their behaviours.
Because individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) struggle to differentiate between real and perceived abandonment, they will often experience cognitive distortions related to this.
Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) often rely on cognitive distortions to justify antisocial or aggressive behaviours.
Another cause might be that humans often naturally pay more attention to threats or negative information. This is linked to our “fight or flight” response, an innate survival mechanism that humans have developed during our evolution. This can fuel some forms of cognitive distortions, especially in times of stress or uncertainty.
Other circumstances that could influence distorted or negative thought patterns developing may include a person’s life experience or childhood environment. The more severe the life experiences or life events are, the more probable it is that cognitive distortions will come about. Researchers suggest that individuals create cognitive distortion to cope with unfavourable life experiences. People can indulge in dwelling on negative emotions because it is a form of defence against certain situations and challenges. These thoughts may occur automatically and unconsciously, and can affect the way an individual may interpret some event occurring in their life.
Cognitive distortions reinforce negative thinking and feelings that perpetuate and contribute to this condition – it becomes a vicious cycle. Over time, the thoughts-emotions-behaviours chain of events can become habitual, even if it is not entirely rational. This is how a cognitive distortion develops.
What are the most common cognitive distortions?
Some examples of common cognitive distortions include:
This is also known as all-or-nothing thinking or polarised thinking. This form of thinking categorises the world into absolutes, leaving out the possibility of any grey areas. Black-and-white thinking deals in extremes. People and situations are either wonderful or dreadful. The person believes that they are either heading for success or failure. They do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. People with panic disorder are often susceptible to this type of thinking. If they have frequent panic attacks, they may view themselves as unworthy or inadequate because of their condition.
Some examples of black-and-white thinking include, but are not limited to:
- If your partner forgets your anniversary, they don’t love you.
- Because you didn’t get a promotion at work, you are a bad employee.
- A group of young people gathering in the street must be up to no good.
- Something with a high price tag must be great quality.
This form of cognitive distortion is when a person only sees the worst outcome of a situation. Any minor mistake is terrible, any difficulty ruins everything, and any small hold-up or setback means that they will never reach their goal. A person has a tendency to assume that the worst-case scenario is the most likely scenario, or think a situation is worse than it really is. A person who more readily notices small changes in their body may have a condition known as interoceptive sensitivity panic disorder. People with high interoceptive sensitivity may notice these small changes in their bodies such as sensations of digestion or changes in heart rate and catastrophise them.
Catastrophising can happen in response to traumatic events in the past and can also be linked to:
Some examples of catastrophic thinking include, but are not limited to:
- Turbulence on a flight means the plane is about to crash
- The boss wants to see me, I am going to be sacked
- A new mole on my skin must be cancer
- It’s raining, the day will be a disaster
- There’s no point applying for that job, they won’t want me
- Always think the worst, it’s most likely to happen
This is when a person comes to a conclusion based on one or two single events and makes assumptions that it will always be the same, despite the fact that reality is too complex to make such generalisations. Overgeneralising can be similar to catastrophising. It means that you are expecting more bad things to happen because one negative event has occurred; however, some people may overgeneralise about a positive event.
People who experience this form of cognitive distortion often display a form of cognitive bias known as the halo/horns effect. This is where they allow a single trait, action, event or behaviour, halo (good) or horns (bad), to overshadow all others that follow. The halo effect pre-disposes them to think favourably of a person or situation, whilst the horns effect pre-disposes them to think negatively of them. Cognitive biases can lead to all kinds of discrimination. Some of these overgeneralisations and biases are related to memory. The way that we remember an event may be biased for a number of reasons and that, in turn, can lead to biased thinking and decision-making. Overgeneralising statements often include the words “always”, “never”, “every” or “all”.
Some examples of overgeneralisation include, but are not limited to:
- A new friend is late for an event, so you warn others that the person is always late
- You receive poor service from a shop so avoid all branches of that retailer
- A young person pushes past you in the bus queue, so you believe that all young people are rude
- The weather was poor last summer, so British summers are always bad
- Your marriage ended in divorce, so you will never find love
- A member of staff writes a good report, therefore all their work will be good
Labelling is a cognitive distortion that involves making a judgement about yourself or someone else as a person, rather than seeing the behaviour as something the person did that doesn’t define them as an individual. This is an extreme form of overgeneralisation. Instead of believing that you or another person has made a mistake, people engaging in this type of thinking might automatically label themselves or others as failures.
Some examples of labelling include, but are not limited to:
- Your co-worker is lazy because they came to work late
- Your child is thoughtless because they forgot your birthday
- Because you failed an exam, you are stupid
- A shop short-changed you, so all retailers are untrustworthy
This form of cognitive distortion is also known as mental filtering. A mental filter is the opposite of overgeneralisation, but with the same negative outcome. Instead of taking one small event and generalising it inappropriately, the mental filter takes one small event and focuses on it exclusively, filtering out anything else. A person undergoing this form of cognitive distortion may experience it in two different ways. Negative mental filtering is when a person focuses on the negatives of a situation and filters out all the positive aspects. They will magnify those negative details and dwell on those feelings. Their vision of reality can become darkened and distorted due to their focus on the negatives. This prevents them from seeing things clearly as they are focused on what is not working, rather than what is working. The other form of mental filtering is disqualifying the positive. This differs from negative mental filtering in that this distortion acknowledges the positive experiences but refuses to accept them. The person will invalidate and ignore the positives while finding excuses to turn them into negatives. This occurs even though there is clear evidence that the experience is positive.
Some examples of selective abstraction include, but are not limited to:
- A person receives one negative comment on X (formerly known as Twitter) and hundreds of positive ones, but they concentrate on the negative one.
- A friend comments that you are looking well today. You brush this aside thinking they must think you look bad at all other times to comment now.
- You may have received positive reviews for a piece of work, but you don’t believe them.
- You gain a promotion at work and dismiss the recognition as simply luck or fluke instead of a result of your hard work.
Jumping to conclusions
This occurs when a person is predicting without having any or sufficient evidence. The person may think that they know what another person thinks despite no external confirmation that their assumption is true. It can, in effect, represent a form of mind-reading. They assume what other people’s reasons or intentions are, and take that interpretation as the only valid reasoning. In reality, there could be many possibilities but they won’t acknowledge them. Other types of jumping to conclusions thinking tend to predict the future, and the person usually foresees a negative outcome. Such a thinker arbitrarily predicts that things will turn out badly based on little or no evidence. Both of these thinking distortions consist of jumping to conclusions and making assumptions. This cognitive distortion can be part of some of the most extreme and intractable forms of depression.
Some examples of jumping to conclusions include, but are not limited to:
- When a partner is distracted, you automatically jump to the conclusion that it has something to do with you
- I know that you will be annoyed at me if I ……
- After an interview you leave thinking, “they are not going to offer the job to me”
- I’m not going to the party, it will be boring
- What’s the point of taking the exam, I’ll only fail
Personalisation is closely connected to another cognitive distortion, blame, whereby you entirely blame yourself, or someone else, for a situation that, in reality, involved many factors that were out of your or their control. When engaging in this type of distortion, an individual will take things personally, or engage in blaming others for their problems. In the former, the person self-blames for circumstances beyond their control, as well as assuming that they have been intentionally excluded or targeted. It is often linked to guilt and shame. In the latter, rather than blaming themselves or taking some responsibility, they tend to play a victim role and hold other people responsible for their problems.
Some examples of personalisation and blaming include, but are not limited to:
- The hairdresser you recommended to a friend does a bad job. Even though you didn’t cut your friend’s hair, you blame yourself for the bad hairstyle – it’s my fault, I recommended them
- Your child isn’t picked for the school football team – you blame yourself for poor parenting
- It rains on your wedding day – it’s your fault for picking April rather than a summer month
- You fail your driving test, but that’s not your fault, the examiner was biased – your instructor didn’t prepare you enough
- Manufacturers put sugar into ready meals so it’s not your fault that you have put on weight, it’s theirs
Always being right
This cognitive distortion thinking pattern causes a person to always have the need to be right. Being wrong is not acceptable and they will go to great lengths to demonstrate their belief. They internalise their opinions as facts and will put others on trial to prove that their own opinions or actions are the correct ones. Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.
Some examples of always being right include, but are not limited to:
- Your partner stating that they know how to fix a leak and they don’t need a plumber – hours later they are still working on the issue
- Social media users who spend hours arguing with each other over an opinion or political issue
- I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right
Should and must statements
This cognitive distortion involves statements of what a person “should” do, “must” do, or even “shouldn’t” do. The statements are enforced on themselves, or on others. These types of statements can make a person feel worried or anxious. They can also cause them to experience guilt or a sense of failure. Because they always think they should be doing something, they end up feeling as if they are constantly failing.
Some examples of should and must statements include, but are not limited to:
- You feel that you should be able to write the report without any help, and feel angry and upset if you can’t do it.
- “I should be able to stick to my diet”, so you end up feeling guilty or disappointed in yourself when you over-indulge on cake, possibly giving up on the diet altogether.
- You feel hurt because a family member should have thanked you for a birthday card that you sent.
- You tell a friend that they must text you to say that they have arrived home safely. When they forget, you feel annoyed, frustrated, or even resentful from disappointment that they ignored your request. This could also cause ongoing interpersonal issues.
This type of reasoning assumes that because you are experiencing a negative emotion, it must accurately reflect reality. If this type of thinker feels scared, there must be real danger. A person relies on “gut” feelings over objective evidence to judge themselves and the world. This type of cognitive distortion can be severe; for example, a person may continue to feel dirty even though they have showered twice within the past hour, so they obsessively clean themselves believing that they are dirty. This kind of thinking can also be harmful as it may lead to irrational decision-making and judgements.
Some examples of emotional reasoning include, but are not limited to:
- A person has guilty feelings so reasons that they must be a bad person
- You feel strongly that it is dangerous to fly, and you discount any evidence to the contrary
- You suspect that anyone who wants to befriend you, wants something from you otherwise why would they want to know you?
- A person feels scared so avoids going out of the house
At some point, we will all experience, to some extent, thoughts that are irrational such as those described above; however, when the severity and/or frequency of this irrational thinking becomes extreme, these negative thought patterns can impact a person’s wellbeing.
How to recognise cognitive distortions
Some people are able to recognise fairly quickly that their errors of thinking are irrational and can bring themselves back to reality. Unfortunately, for many of us, our minds are usually on “autopilot” when we experience cognitive distortions. We often don’t realise that it is happening and that is what makes it so difficult to recognise that the thoughts we are having are inaccurate and illogical.
Cognitive distortions are consistent errors in thinking, so it is useful to take time to examine what you are thinking. The first step is being aware of your cycle of negative thinking; try to spot how your negative thought pattern starts and how it develops. By familiarising yourself with the common cognitive distortions list, you can identify negative thoughts and patterns to avoid negative thinking traps altogether. Most irrational patterns of thought can be shifted once you are made aware of them.
How to deal with cognitive distortions
Cognitive distortions can be managed once you have identified that a thought is causing anxiety or affecting your mood. It is also important to identify which type of cognitive distortion you are experiencing.
If you have identified a thought that you think might be a cognitive distortion, try talking to yourself in the same way you would talk to a friend.
You can ask yourself some of these questions:
- How do I know what I’m thinking is true? Simply “feeling like” it’s true isn’t enough.
- Do I have proof to support this thought?
- What other explanations might there be?
- Am I drawing conclusions based on my feelings or on evidence?
- How might my own biases influence this conclusion?
- Would I feel this way if I were experiencing a different emotion?
- How much of this situation is truly in my control, and what’s my evidence for that?
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- How likely is that to actually happen?
- How would I deal with it if it did happen?
- Are there more helpful ways of thinking about a situation?
Finally, when you have answers to these questions, replace that negative thought with one that is more positive and realistic.
Acknowledge that unpleasant things do happen – life is full of challenges as well as good and bad days. Having one bad day does not mean all days will be bad.
Reframe the thought – try approaching your situation from a different perspective. Perhaps imagine the best possible outcome versus the worst possible outcome, versus what is most likely to happen.
Focus on alternative outcomes – instead of thinking about a negative outcome, try to focus on a less negative one or even a positive option.
Rephrase – instead of using statements that use words such as “always” and “everyone”, try to replace these words with others such as “sometimes” and “some people”.
Challenge yourself – for every negative aspect, try to find at least three positive aspects to counter the negative.
By continually challenging those negative thoughts over and over again, any habitual tendency towards cognitive distortions will begin to diminish. Over time, your thoughts will automatically be replaced by more rational thinking.
Try mindfulness, which is breathing deeply, remaining present in the moment, and noticing small details of your surroundings, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Mindfulness means being present and grounded in the current moment rather than fixating on the past or future.
If you feel that one or more of the above cognitive distortions is contributing to feelings of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, counselling and psychotherapy can help you to spot your irrational ideas about yourself or others, and help to identify the dangers of cognitive distortions. Your doctor can refer you to the right treatment professional. They may use therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or rational emotive behavioural therapy (REBT) and a process referred to in cognitive therapy as cognitive restructuring to adjust automatic thoughts, and help transform negative thoughts and beliefs. CBT aims to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with situations. The NHS talking therapies services finder can help you find out which services are available in your local area. You can also find accredited CBT therapists through the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).
By managing our thoughts in a positive way, we can change our mood by first changing our thoughts. This will enhance how we feel and improve our mental wellbeing.
We can also help to support friends or family members who may be experiencing cognitive distortions by being patient. It can be frustrating when someone is thinking in a distorted way and the truth feels obvious to you. Try to be patient and remember we all struggle with cognitive distortions at times. You could ask them if they would like your assistance reframing the thought, as this can be helpful. But make sure to ask for their permission before reframing for them, as this could be seen as invalidating their thoughts. If someone that you know is feeling overwhelmed by cognitive distortions, it could be beneficial to encourage them to seek help from a professional.