Cognitive Distortions are unrealistic, irrational thoughts that can impact our emotions and behaviors. They are normal to experience to some degree, but can be harmful to us. Becoming more mindful of our own cognitive distortions can set us up to think more flexible, impacting our emotions and behaviors in a positive way.
Below you will find common cognitive distortions and examples of them, along with how to challenge them to think more rational and realistic:
1. Catastrophizing: seeing only the worst possible outcomes in situations
a. Example: A friend was supposed to meet you for dinner and is running late and not answering her phone.
b. Automatic thought could be: He/she got into a car accident (often leads to anxiety and a fear response)
c. Another automatic thought could be: He/she is blowing me off (often leads to anger and resentment)
Although this is a possibility, it can lead to a lot of unwanted emotions and reactions, including anxiety, sadness and fear. Catastrophizing, such as the example above, is most often triggered by a reaction to trauma. By challenging this distortion, you are building on flexible thinking patterns. What are other possibilities that could cause your friend to be late for dinner and/or not answering her phone at the moment?
2. Fortune Telling: The expectation that a situation can and will turn out badly without actual evidence, but instead making assumptions.
a. Example. Choosing not to trust a partner within your relationship because of “knowing” he/she will cheat on you. b. Automatic thought could be: If I trust them, then they will hurt me (often leads to anxiety and fear). c. Automatic thought could be: There is no point in getting involved in a relationship because I will be cheated on (often leads to anger and resentment).
Although this is a possibility, it can lead to unwanted emotions and reactions, including resentment, anger and sadness. Fortune telling can be a result of a previous experience that was traumatic or hurtful in some way, leading you to believe every situation will be the same or similar moving forward. Challenging this distortion can be scary, but it is based on using facts rather than assumptions. What is the evidence for and against this thought? What are the “facts” vs. assumptions?
There are many other cognitive distortions that exist. However, the purpose is to create flexibility within your life, which can often lead to more realistic thinking patterns, and therefore, more effective responses.
Beck, J.S. (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and beyond. New York: The Guilford Press.