What are Cognitive Distortions? How do They Fuel Anxiety & Depression?

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Brooks

Once upon a time, long ago but not too far away, I was in the first month of a new executive director job. When I checked the voice mail there was a message from the president of the board of directors. In a solemn voice he asked me to call him as soon as I could. I thought, “He sounds so serious. He must hate my work!” My heart sank, my palms got sweaty, my mouth went dry. It took every ounce of resolve to face my anxiety and call him back. As soon as he picked up he said, “I want you to know how happy we are that you joined us.”

We feel what we think.

Accept this simple premise and you will be on your way to recognizing the thoughts that provoke self-esteem-eating anxiety and depression. This is the first step to change those destructive thoughts and as a result change your mood from anxious and depressed to empowered and liberated. Here’s how to start…

We feel what we think.

Just from the sound of his voice I jumped to the conclusion the board president was going to reprimand me and my anxiety shot up. In the same vein, if I think “My friend is mad at me for not calling her on her birthday. I must be an awful person,” I feel miserable. If I think, “I just barely had enough in the bank this month to cover my bills. I’ll end up bankrupt and homeless!” I will feel really scared. These thoughts are cognitive distortions.

Right now, you and I can see clearly how those thoughts are exaggerated, over-the-top, unreasonable. It’s not so easy to see when we are caught up in the moment.

Luckily, to make this task easier for us, Dr. David Burns did a lot of work categorizing ten basic ways we distort our thinking. Study these categories. Highlight the ones you tend to use. Think of your own real life examples.

1.  All-or-nothing thinking. You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

2.  Over-generalization. You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

3.  Mental filter. You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

4.  Disqualifying the positive. You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

5.  Jumping to conclusions. You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.

Mind reading. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out.

Fortune Telling. You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.

6.  Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization. Also called the “binocular trick.” You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections).

7.  Emotional reasoning. You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

8.  ‘Should’ statements. You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

9.  Labeling and mislabeling. This is an extreme form of over-generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

10.  Personalization. You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.

Myself, I’ve used all of these cognitive distortions at some time or other, but I think I’ve leaned towards the ‘Should’ statements more than anything. It’s taken some work to shake the guilt if I don’t do what I think I ‘should’ be doing. And if I don’t watch it, I should be doing whatever it is I’m not doing at the moment! Can you see how this way of thinking is totally nuts?

Which of these distortions are on your personal top hits list? Let me know in the comments!

Coming up soon: 7 Steps to Stop Cognitive Distortions… or at least slow them down.



  • Ginger

    Thank you Dr. Aletta for publishing this. It has come to me at a critical time in my life. Funny, I remember learning this in grad school, but had forgotten about it as I am being bounced around in a stormy sea of depression that has gotten worse. I am a clinician that is working towards getting my clinical license in Social Work, but am also a person that is struggling with my life long depression that runs in my family. My father has it along with his mother (who died) but it can be traced to my paternal side of the family. None of my three siblings have it so, it has made me feel even more isolated. For some reason, I have seen an increase in people who are experiencing depression and having these cognitive distortions. I have some theories, but rather not go into great detail, but basically, our world right now is just filled with strife, anxiety and uncertainty of finances. Depression as you know, just really soaks your brain in a heavy, dense fog that just doesn’t seem to lift at times. In the midst of an episode, it is really easy to forget how to heal ourselves or even to remind ourselves of these distortions and put them into play for ourselves. So, thank you again from the bottom of my heart..Your facebook friend;)

    • You humble me, Ginger. I am so glad you find any amount of guidance and comfort in my efforts, truly, it means a lot to me.

      As for your depression. I hope you are working with a good therapist who is helping you understand and cope with all the different fronts from which depression can come at us, hereditary, environment, stress…

      There is hope for even the most depressed of us to feel in control again.

  • [...] couple of days ago I wrote an article about what a cognitive distortion is and how they can mess up with out thinking so badly we become anxious or depressed. Today I want to [...]

  • Ginger

    Thank you, Dr. Aletta! I am working with a great therapist. Yes, it is genetic and situational. At one visit with my psychiatrist I tearfully told him that I felt “doomed”, like this is what I would be like for the rest of my life. He is a Christian and told me that no one is ever “doomed” and helped me to refocus on my faith. Sometimes you just feel that you can’t get over that wall, but I know that one day, I will! And that is what will make me an even better clinician!

  • It’s funny Dr Aletta, how our minds operate.

    People often tell me how much they enjoy my writing/radio show, etc. and how helpful those things are to them Personally, I’m glad that I’m able to help people even a little bit.

    But recently, I had ONE person, who is an expert in the field (which I found out later to have a personal axe to grind with me due to him dating my ex) had quite a few negative things to say about me. This was VERY troubling to me and created quite a bit of anxiety and second guessing on my part.

    Why is it that innumerable accolades don’t seem to carry as much weight as one negative comment?


    • Dear Rob, Most of us have this very problem. This article I wrote “Why 3 Positive Thoughts + 1 Negative Thought = Misery” explains why it happens the best way I know how, http://explorewhatsnext.com/?p=1283.

      To combat this tendency we have, I try to focus on the evidence as if I were a lawyer. Weigh the amount of supportive feedback. Then ask yourself is it really reasonable to make the one nasty comment, even from a so-called expert, so powerful? Of course not. That is the real stuff, not distorted by how our ancestors had to live. It takes real effort, but it’s worth it.

      I hope this helps.

      P.S. You are awesome. :-)

  • [...] Read over the list of ten cognitive distortions. Learn precisely how you are twisting things and blowing them out of [...]

  • [...] Then I teach them about cognitive behavioral psychotherapy, how it’s the most effective therapy model known to work on depression and anxiety. I want my clients to know as much as I do about CBT and the other treatments for depression and anxiety. That way they can do it for themselves outside the office, on their own and forever. [...]

  • [...] Use the space. Isolate the thought that drives the anxiety and label it. When anxiety had me by the throat recently I took the time to look at it closely. When I did that I [...]

  • […] we anticipate a million “what if” scenarios that leap into the future and, believe me, whenever we “fortune tell” in an anxious state the outcome is never good! Why is that? Because when we’re in flight-fight mode we are reacting to a perceived threat […]

  • […] disorders are plagued by twisted thinking. In my business we call this twisted thinking cognitive distortions. You know, those thoughts that all sound right in your head but you would never say them to someone […]


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