4 Common Cognitive Distortions (and Ways to Manage Them)

4 Common Cognitive Distortions (and Ways to Manage Them)

Health & Wellness
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Cognitive Distortions are unhelpful thinking styles we all have that can lead to anxiety, depression, and obsessive thinking– all things most of us would like to avoid. Below are four common cognitive distortions that I see in my practice, and ways to manage them.

1. Using “Should” Statements

Have you ever said to yourself: “I should exercise” or, “I should clean the house” or, “I shouldn’t be so lazy”?

I’m sure you have, as we all have. It’s almost like there are unspoken rules that society, and we put on ourselves. We often think this is a good way to motivate ourselves, however, research shows that when we put these ‘shoulds’ on ourselves, we often feel guilty, worthless, and anxious.

We also tend to put these “should” statements on others. Saying things like, “They should call me back right away” or, “They should understand what I’m saying.” But when we put these rules on others, it often leaves us angry, resentful, and sad when things don’t meet our expectations or go the way you planned. The words, “must” and “ought” are also offenders in this category.

One way to combat these thoughts is to practice questioning the root of the statement. Next time you notice yourself using ‘should’ statements, ask yourself, ‘why should I do this?’ and ‘Who says I should do this?’

2. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is a common cognitive distortion or thought distortion that many of us use without even realizing it. This is when our anxiety or depression tells us that disaster and tragedy are about to strike!

Some examples of catastrophizing are:

Your boss gives you constructive feedback and then you think, “I’m going to be fired, I just know it!

When you get into a fight with your partner and then you assume they are going to break up with you.

Another way to describe catastrophizing is to think of it as magnifying certain events, maybe ones that are insignificant or are a mistake — focusing on something specific and then magnifying it to mean more.

The first step to coping with catastrophizing is to be aware that you are doing it. By being able to have insight into what your mind is doing and being able to label it as, “I’m catastrophizing,” you can begin to change your thoughts.

Step two is asking yourself these questions:

What is the more rational outcome?

Has this been true in the past?

What would I tell a friend who was in this situation?
Is that the worst case scenario that I’m playing out?

By being able to have awareness and then actively challenge your cognitive distortions, it will allow you to experience less anxiety and depression, and help you feel more balanced and grounded.

3. Mind Reading

We all think that we can often read someone else’s mind, or that we just know what they are thinking and that it must be negative. We jump to conclusions based on our own perceptions, projections, and insecurities.

Some examples of mind reading include thoughts such as: “They are thinking that what I said was dumb.” or, “She is thinking I don’t know the answer, but I do.”

Mind reading is a skill we think we have mastered. But in reality, it’s quite harmful to ourselves and others. When it comes down to it, we don’t know what the other person is thinking, we may have guesses and hypotheses, but that doesn’t mean we are right, and we definitely aren’t right 100% of the time. And when it comes to strangers or people we barely know, we often don’t get it right.

Mind reading can breed a lot of anxiety, sadness, and anger. So the next time you catch yourself saying, “He must be thinking (fill in the blank) about me,” actively challenge yourself. Ask yourself questions like:

“How do I know they are thinking that?”
“Are those just my feelings of fear and insecurity?”
“Maybe they are thinking (insert more positive thought here).”

Challenge yourself to accept that you may not know what someone is thinking of you, but confirm what you do know about yourself. For example, “I do know that I am kind, funny, and love dogs. These things I know are true.”

4. All or Nothing Thinking

All or Nothing Thinking is one of the most common cognitive distortions. Things are either completely one extreme or the other, when in actuality we know there is much more wiggle room for all the things in between.

With All or Nothing Thinking, you make thing You are either perfect or a disaster. You are smart or you are dumb. You are funny or you are boring.

Some examples of All or Nothing Thinking include:

“I’m the worst test taker”
“I never get things right. I’m so stupid”
“She always cuts me off when I’m talking, she thinks I’m nothing.”

“I went off my diet today. I will never be able to lose weight or keep with a diet.”

We are usually our harshest critics and we talk to ourselves in ways we would never speak to a family member or friend. These types of feelings often make us feel negative emotions of depression and anxiety. It can be helpful to first be aware you are even doing this. Once you label it, then you can combat it.

So how do you deal with All or Nothing Thinking? It’s important to ask yourself if there is any evidence that points to something different. If this was in percentages, could there be something besides 0% or 100%? 
Is there another way I could be looking at this? 
What would my friend say to me about this?

Learning to change your thought distortions takes time, so be patient with yourself. These are well worn habits that we have been operating with for years. The exciting part is, we can change these unhelpful patterns and actively decrease our anxiety and depression.

Think of your mind as a tennis racket, when that thought distortion pops into your brain, or on your racket, you want to hit it across the court. Goodbye negative thought, don’t let the door hit ya on the way out. And just remember, once you label it, combat it.

Want to work on changing your cognitive distortions with a mental health provider? Find a CBT therapist near me.

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  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-practice/201301/50-common-cognitive-distortions
  2. https://www.verywellmind.com/ten-cognitive-distortions-identified-in-cbt-22412

Andrea Zorbas, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, founder of Therapy Now SF, and professor at University of San Francisco