Feeling Anxious or Depressed? Watch Out for Cognitive Distortions

image with distortionsIt’s been said the way you think impacts the way you feel. Cognitive distortions, a form of negative thinking or automatic thoughts, can contribute to negative emotions, anxiety and depression and vice versa. Feelings are not facts.

Cognitive distortions are inaccurate ways of thinking that seem true, real or accurate. By recognizing the different types of cognitive distortions, you can begin to spot thinking traps that are holding you back.

Read through these cognitive distortions and start challenging your thoughts. You may find that your thoughts feel absolutely true to you, yet when put through this list, they represent distorted ways of thinking. If you’ve been feeling anxious or depressed lately, make a note of your thoughts and see where they might fall in this list.

Types of Cognitive Distortions

Here are some of the common thought habits that cause distress, including anxiety and depression, based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and the work of Aaron Beck and David Burns:

All or Nothing Thinking:

  • Things are seen as black and white terms, where there are no shades of gray. I you make a mistake, you think that you “failed” and/or are a “failure”. Example: “I am a bad mother.”

Blaming:

  • You blame yourself or others for the problems in your life, giving up control of your feelings and reactions. This is “victim” mentality. Example: “He makes me miserable!”

Discounting the Positive:

  • In a given situation, you focus only on the negative. Example: “Even though she asked me to mentor a coworker because of my competence, she does not realize I really do not know a lot.”

Emotional Reasoning:

  • You lose objectivity and stick to your interpretations based on your emotions and negative self-image rather than sticking to the objective facts. Example: “I feel like a stupid person so I AM a stupid person.”

Fallacy of Fairness:

  • You expect life to be fair. Example: “Life should be fair and I should get what I deserve.”

Fortune Telling:

  • You predict a negative outcome in the future based on your distorted way of thinking. You think you know what will happen without any real evidence. Example: “I’ll never love again.”

Jumping to Conclusions:

  • Without checking the facts, your conclusions immediately interpret a situation idiosyncratically in line with your negative way of thinking. Example: “He didn’t call me – He must be breaking up with me.”

Labeling:

  • You label yourself or others by terms such as “lazy” “fat” “stupid” “loser” “jerk”, stating them like they are facts. A label becomes erroneously an evaluation of self-worth. Example: “I’m just fat and lazy” and “He is a jerk.”

Magnification or Minimization:

  • You either blow things out of proportion or deny something is a problem when it is. Examples: “It’s nothing – Not a big deal (when it really is to you).” And “It’s AWFUL that she said that!”

Mental Filter:

  • You pick out a negative single issue and dwell on it, like a drop of ink that discolors a whole beaker of water. Example: “My big nose makes me so unattractive.”

Mind Reading:

  • You think with certainty that you know what and why others think and feel. Example: “He is just trying to show me up!”

Over-Catastrophizing:

  • This is when people assume the worst and exaggerate an issue. If you made a mistake you see yourself as a failure. Example: “She’s mad at me – I can’t ever face her again.”

Overgeneralization:

  • You generalize from a specific. You think in absolutes, like “always” “never” and see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern. Example: “Nobody likes me.”

Personalization:

  • Interpretations are distorted and you think things are about you when it is just an interpretation. You think if someone is angry or negative you take responsibility for things out of your control. Example: “It’s my fault that my child is depressed.”

Playing the Comparison Game:

  • Comparing yourself to others and needing to keep up with, or outshine others to feel good about yourself. Example: “He is so much smarter than me – I’m stupid.”

Should Statements:

  • Having pre-conditions on how you and other people “should” be. Judgmental and unforgiving expectations using “musts” an “shoulds” create a lot of anxiety. Examples: “I shouldn’t be so upset about this.” “He should know that already!”

Feeling anxious or depressed? Take our anxiety test or depression test to check your symptoms. 

Keeping a CBT Thought Record to Overcome Negative Thoughts

Since automatic thoughts are well, automatic, it can be helpful to make an effort to become more aware of them so you can eventually begin to change them. In CBT, this is done by keeping track of your automatic thoughts through a thought record.

In your thought record, you want to keep track of:

  1. The emotions you felt.
  2. The automatic thoughts you had, writing them down word for word as accurately as possible. (This helps you to recognize the distortions vs. facts). Here is a list of thoughts you can use to help you identify yours. 
  3. The cognitive distortion. What thinking errors are you making based on the list of cognitive distortions above?
  4. Identify a realistic response to your negative thoughts.
  5. Outcome. How do you feel now that you have tried to answer the thoughts?

Example:

  1. Situation: I didn’t do well on that test.
  2. Feelings: Anger (at myself), Anxiety (about my grade).
  3. Automatic thoughts: I’m lazy so I didn’t study. I’m going to do awful in this course.
  4. Find the distortions: mislabeling, overgeneralization, fortune telling.
  5. Realistic response: I really wasn’t sure what the test would be like. I’ve studied or been prepared for other tests. I’ll be prepared for the next one. Now that I know the kind of questions that will be asked, I’ll know how to prepare.
  6. Outcome: no longer angry. Still somewhat anxious, but I’ve already completed my assignment for the next class.

Create Your CBT Thought Record

Write some examples of your own unhealthy thoughts and note which one or more cognitive distortions fit. Then find an alternate rational response. You can create a column format thought record like this:

Situation (I made a mistake at work)Feelings (guilt, shame, anxiety)Negative Thoughts (I am different and others don’t/won’t like me)Type of Cognitive Distortion (Labeling, Fortune Telling, All or Nothing Thinking)Rational Response/Alternative Thinking 

Or keep a journal format thought record, which gives you more room to write out your thoughts and responses.

Here is an example of a questions for a journal format thought record. 

Now that you have the list of cognitive distortions, you can begin to manage your feelings a little more. You can now understand that thoughts create feelings – and you TOTALLY have the power to choose your thoughts.

Steps to Recognizing Cognitive Distortions:

Once you’ve identified that you are experiencing a negative or uncomfortable emotion, follow these steps to get back in balance.

  1. Name the Feeling
  2. Validate the feeling
  3. Find the thoughts underneath the feeling
  4. Find the objective truth about the thought
  5. Name the cognitive distortion
  6. Identify a realistic response.
  7. Check in with the feeling again

For instance. You wake up in the morning and you are feeling really depressed. You went to a work party the night before, you drank a little bit too much. You came home and you had a gigantic binge.

1. Name the Feeling

You ask yourself “what am I feeling.”

I am feeling very anxious and also depressed.

2. Validate the feeling

Put your hand over your heart:

And say “Anxious,” breath into the feeling of being anxious. Notice where you feel it in your body, concentrate on that part of your body and just send loving breath to it.

Keep your hand on your heart and say, “depressed,” feel where you have sadness and depression in your body and just breath into it. Feel it and send it kindness, like you would a young child who was feeling sad.

3. Find the thoughts (cognitive distortions) under the feeling.

Ask yourself, what are the thoughts that are triggering these feelings?

I was at a work party last night where I drank too much. I think that I made a fool of myself when I talked to people and maybe I said or did something that I shouldn’t have. Everyone thinks that I’m totally weird and screwed up. I won’t have any more friends, my boss will fire me; there is no way I can show my face at work tomorrow. I am so mortified, I want to disappear. I can’t believe I binged, I’m such a fat pig, how could I have done it again?”

The thoughts are, “I made a fool of myself, everyone thinks I’m screwed up, no one will like me, I’m going to be fired. I’m a fat pig.” This is an example of a cognitive distortion. Let’s see why.

4. Name the cognitive distortion

Magnification: I blew something out of proportion. It probably wasn’t as bad as I thought.

Should Statements: I should never look silly or out of control.

Jumping to Conclusions: No one will talk to me.

Mislabeling: I called myself a fat pig

5. Find the objective truth about the thoughts

1 .For each of these statements, what is absolutely true?

What’s absolutely true is that I drank too much and that I am mortified and want to disappear.

2. How do you know that’s true?

Because I said things that I wouldn’t have said if I hadn’t been drinking and I woke up with a hangover.

3. Are there any thoughts here that might not be true?

It might not be true that I made a fool out of myself. It may not be true that I did or said anything that I shouldn’t have. It might not be true that everyone thinks I’m a horrible person. It may not be true that I won’t have any more friends.

4. How do you know that these thoughts might not be true? How else could you interpret what happened?

Because I am not a mind reader and I can’t know what everyone is thinking.

5. What is a more balanced truth here?

The truth is that I’m certainly not the first person to get drunk at an office party. In fact, many people there were drinking and some were drinking a lot. I doubt that many people noticed whatever I said or did. Most people are usually so anxious about what other people are thinking of them at these functions that I imagine very few people are wasting their time obsessing over what I did or did not say. Besides, if I lose friends for one night of being drunk, I will know that these weren’t real friends anyway.

6. Check in with the feeling again, ask yourself how are you feeling now?

Still anxious, yet a bit calmer. I can get up and walk away from this for now. I don’t have to eat something to stuff it down and feel better. I can breath through it and know that a lot of my feelings of guilt and shame are not the objective truth, they are just self-imposed thoughts.

Using these 6 steps can often help you to feel better about a situation when your mind has hijacked you into feeling terrible.

Get Help Shifting Unhealthy Thought Patterns

It can be very difficult to shift patterns of thinking that you’ve had possibly for much of your life. Unpleasant experiences such as a relationship break-up or loss can also contribute to negative thinking. Changing these fears and patterns of thinking can be difficult to do on your own. A therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you recognize and change unhelpful thinking and cognitive distortions and work through fears and unpleasant experiences.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be an effective form of treatment for depression, anxiety and many other mental health concerns. Contact a therapist to start feeling better.

Take our Emotion Regulation and Self Compassion quizzes. 

Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP on Twitter
Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP
Rachel’s passion is to help people discover their personal gifts and strengths to achieve self-acceptance, create a healthy relationship with food, mind and body, and find meaning and fulfillment in work and life roles. She helps people create nurturance and healing from within to restore balance and enoughness and overcome binge eating, emotional eating, anxiety, depression and lack of career fulfillment.

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