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What Are Cognitive Distortions and How to Deal With Them

Mental health is important no matter how old we are. Positive mental health enables us to handle life’s stresses, manage our responsibilities well, and maintain good relationships with others. Yet people with cognitive distortions have an increased tendency to view things negatively.

Cognitive distortions or irrational thought patterns are not considered a mental illness. Rather, they can be a symptom of an existing problem such as depression. If not, they can contribute to increased sadness and depression.

Both children and adults experience cognitive distortions from time to time as a way of coping with difficult situations. These distortions can be unhealthy when overused, which is why we need to become aware of them.

Knowing these different cognitive distortions helps you recognize their presence in your life, so you can overcome them effectively.

Types of Cognitive Distortions

It was Aaron Beck who first noted these thought patterns in his depressed patients. By helping them notice and correct them through cognitive behavioral therapy, he found their feelings and behaviors started to change for the better.

  1. Jumping to conclusions – This is believing that others think negatively of you or anticipating the worst outcome even before it happens.
  1. All-or-nothing thinking – Perfectionists often suffer from this thought pattern. They believe that all outcomes are either a “success” or “failure,” and there are no other options in between.
  1. Overgeneralization – This is when you think of something in terms or “always” or “never.” For example, “I always make mistakes” or “I never get anything right.”
  1. Discounting the positive – As the term implies, this cognitive distortion involves overlooking or ignoring positive aspects as if they don’t matter.
  1. Catastrophizing – This distortion makes people feel helpless because they believe something is more harmful or damaging than it really is. For example, assuming you have cancer because you’ve been having headaches all week.
  1. ‘Should’ statements – People who place unreasonable expectations on themselves may use too many ‘should’ statements. I should score high on my exam, or else I’ll fail. I should avoid processed foods 100% of the time.
  1. Mental filter – This distortion can be a symptom of depression. When people use a mental filter, they ignore the positive things that happened and dwell on the negative ones.
  1. Personalization – This means taking things personally even though you had nothing to do with it. For example, blaming yourself when someone is having a bad day and snaps at you.
  1. Labeling – Attaching negative labels to yourself and letting them define you is called labeling. Calling yourself lazy after not waking up on time, for example.
  1. Emotional reasoning – Your feelings toward a situation can sometimes be perceived as the ultimate truth, even though there’s no rational evidence to support it.

Ways to Deal with Cognitive Distortions

Negative thoughts don’t have to control your life. Challenging these thought patterns starts by noticing them arise during stressful situations and applying the following strategies based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Look for a therapist who’s trained in CBT.

Working with a therapist to discuss your concerns is one of the best decisions you can make. Remember that therapy is a safe space to explore what’s triggering negative thoughts and develop coping skills that will help manage your feelings.

Some individuals feel embarrassed to consult a therapist because of the stigma attached. Seeking therapy can be good for several reasons, including getting professional guidance and increasing your mindfulness.

Record your thoughts.

A thought record is a proven tool that captures automatic thoughts. For instance, imagine being ignored by someone you said “Hi” to. This event upset you and led you to conclude that the person doesn’t like you.

With the help of a thought record, you can describe in detail the situation above, how you felt, and the automatic thought you had. Next, you’re going to think of alternative healthier ways to view the situation instead of accepting the cognitive distortion.

Answer self-help worksheets in your own time.

Managing the effects of cognitive distortion, anxiety, or depression, for example, can be done at home. A recent review of self-management interventions found that they help reduce symptoms of a mental illness, provide a sense of empowerment, and aid in the recovery process.

For kids and teens with symptoms of depression, filling out depression worksheets allows them to track their symptoms on a daily basis. More importantly, they can discover new coping strategies to make them feel better.

Perform a cost-benefit analysis.

A cost-benefit analysis is a technique CBT therapists use to evaulate the pros and cons of thinking a certain way — thus, the term “cost-benefit.”

Here’s an exercise: Try to remember a time when someone hurt your feelings, and you had an automatic thought (e.g., ‘I’m so inconsiderate. No wonder she’s mad at me.”). Next, write down the advantages of holding on to that thought. Did it make you feel empowered? Did it teach you a helpful lesson? Next, write down the disadvantages of that thought. Did it cause a lot of stress, which distracted you from important tasks and made you unproductive? Did it lower your self-confidence?

This is a simple activity that helps you decide which thoughts to keep and which ones to change.


What’s great about these techniques is that with practice, healthy, realistic thinking becomes second nature. Perhaps the most important thing to remember each day while you’re in the process of overcoming a cognitive distortion is that not all thoughts are facts. In other words, you don’t have to believe everything you think. This will safeguard you from becoming easily distracted by incorrect or faulty thinking and allow you to lead a happier life.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Michael Vallejo is a Child & Family Therapist with a private practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Through Mental Health Center Kids he hopes to support other therapists, parents, teachers, and mental health professionals with visually appealing online resources to support the well-being of kids in their care.

Photo by Remi Turcotte on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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