Cognitive distortions are biased thoughts that create negative patterns in the way a person thinks. They can be a response to depression and anxiety. Changing these habitual thoughts can help improve a person’s general well-being.

It is common to experience negative thoughts day to day, but when these thought patterns become consistent, they can begin to interfere with a person’s daily life.

Cognitive distortions are biased thoughts that can distort the way a person sees themselves, their life, their specific day-to-day situations, their relationships, and other people. These thoughts can contribute to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Read on to learn more about what cognitive distortions are, the possible causes, and ways to manage them.

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According to the American Psychological Association, a cognitive distortion is an inaccurate way of thinking. This is a fairly typical mental process that occurs in all people to varying degrees.

The brain creates these mental filters as shortcuts to reduce the burden of processing lots of information at once. However, this can cause oversimplifications of complex thoughts, which can make a person feel badly about themselves.

According to a 2021 study, cognitive distortions can contribute to the development and worsening of mental health conditions such as depression.

Learning to identify cognitive distortions can help a person reframe their thinking and improve their mood.

By understanding the structure of cognitive distortions, a person can better identify them in their thought patterns.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Aaron Beck and others conducted research that led to the creation of the common therapy method cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and determined that at least 10 types of cognitive distortions exist. Understanding these types is essential to the success of CBT.

The types are:

  • Labeling: This is a reaction in which someone classifies themselves in an entirely negative way, sometimes but not always in the aftermath of an unsuccessful life event. For example, they reduce themselves to a “failure” after getting a rejection from a job application.
  • Discounting the positive: A person will discount and reduce any positive event in their life, chalking it up to luck or labeling it unimportant.
  • Mental filtering: This is a thought pattern that lingers and focuses on negative events or thoughts, even in the face of contradictory information.
  • Emotional reasoning: A person with emotional reasoning will allow their emotions to dictate what they believe as truth, without paying attention to the facts in front of them.
  • Mindreading: This cognitive distortion leads people to assume that other people have negative thoughts about them, even though they may not.
  • Catastrophizing: A person who catastrophizes will dread the future, predicting negative outcomes despite having no evidence to suggest that those outcomes are possible or likely.
  • Overgeneralizing: This distortion involves assuming that one negative event means all future events will have negative outcomes.
  • Personalization: A person with this distortion believes that all negative events are their fault in some way.
  • “Should” statements: A person may always think that they could have or must have done things in a particular way in the past, even though they did not have all the information to know how to act.
  • All-or-nothing thinking: This involves viewing everything as black and white or either-or, without considering the details of a situation.

Cognitive distortions can be an expression of a person’s preexisting internal biases. These negatively skewed thoughts are likely to increase a person’s likelihood of depression and lead to negative behavioral responses.

Researchers theorize that times of high stress, such as traumatic life events or challenges during childhood, can activate cognitive distortion. This may happen as a survival and evolutionary adaptation to streamline the thinking process.

However, this activation can continue into later life and affect events that are not necessarily negative, causing the person to view those neutral events negatively.

To treat and manage cognitive distortions, a person has to learn to restructure their thought patterns and responses to stimuli. While this is difficult, with commitment, it is possible to change cognitive distortions.

CBT is a highly effective type of therapy that doctors recommend for many mental health conditions. It is useful for both children and adults, as well as couples and families.

CBT is a type of talk therapy that works to highlight the inaccuracy of cognitive distortions for the situations in which they occur and how they affect mood and behavior. It also incorporates two other important aspects of mental health:

  • Underlying beliefs: These shape how a person interprets events and processes information. They include both core beliefs, such as “I am unlovable,” and intermediate beliefs, such as “To be accepted, I should please others all the time.”
  • Automatic thoughts: Addressing this aspect helps change a person’s immediate response to a stimulus. For example, if someone does not say hello to them, a person could interpret this as “They are in a rush” instead of “They hate me.”

If a person is looking for a therapist to help them with CBT, they should look for a specialist trained in CBT. If a person does not want to see a therapist, they can try to focus on the following steps to identify thoughts that contribute to negative feelings in the moment:

  • identifying the thoughts that cause negative feelings
  • analyzing where these thoughts come from and whether there is any evidence behind them
  • identifying whether these are habitual thoughts and, if so, replacing them with neutral thoughts, even if the person does not believe those neutral thoughts

Cognitive distortions are repeated negative thoughts that are often habitual and emphasized based on a person’s own opinion or emotion.

Researchers believe that cognitive distortions are sometimes but not always the result of stress, negative life events, or gradual smaller events, such as negative expressions from parents or caregivers, that continue to trigger this way of thinking later in life.

CBT is an effective way to restructure these thought patterns. Using this method, a specialist psychotherapist will guide a person through their thought patterns and highlight the inaccuracy of cognitive distortions in these repeated thoughts.