Cognitive Distortions Make Life Harder—Here’s How to Stay in Reality

Have you ever felt like something terrible is about to happen or called yourself a loser for one mistake or misstep? Have you told yourself you “should” be a certain way or assumed everything you feel must be true?

Because you’re human, the answer is probably “yes.” Just about everyone has fallen into the pit of negative thinking, even though the facts don’t support your conclusion.

“We call these cognitive distortions,” says Tiffany Hopkins, PhD, UNC Health clinical psychologist. “Essentially, it’s a thinking error. Our brain interprets situations in ways that may not be reality.”

We can easily believe that only the worst can happen, or that we know what other people are thinking (it’s not good), or that everything is our fault.

“Every human being will have a cognitive distortion at one time or another. It is very normal. However, if we take these thought errors too seriously, it can cause problems in our lives,” Dr. Hopkins says.

When Cognitive Distortions Strike

Some of the most common cognitive distortions are:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing events or people as one way or another, without allowing for in-between or gray areas.
  • Catastrophizing: Assuming the worst will happen; jumping to conclusions about future events.
  • Emotional reasoning: Believing that because you feel a particular way, it must be true.
  • “Should” statements: Imposing rigid rules or beliefs on yourself or others.
  • Magical thinking: Believing that what you think or don’t think can influence outcomes; superstitious thinking.
  • Magnifying: Making something negative much bigger than it actually is.
  • Disqualifying the positive: Not seeing something good or positive and instead focusing on the bad or negative.
  • Labeling: Giving negative labels to yourself or others, such as “bad” or “stupid,” based on just a few facts or occurrences.

Usually, distorted or twisted thinking happens when we’re under an unusual amount of stress, like changing jobs, getting married or starting a family. Pandemic fears and illness certainly contribute, especially when coupled with the isolation of quarantine. Sometimes, the cause could be a bad night’s sleep or even being hungry.

“The problem with this kind of thinking is that it amplifies our negative emotions,” Dr. Hopkins says. “And that makes it harder to problem-solve and take proactive, positive measures.”

Cognitive distortions by themselves are not considered mental illness, she says. However, people diagnosed with depression or anxiety may be more likely to experience cognitive distortions.

Help for Distorted, Negative Thinking

A therapist may be able to help if the negativity and hopelessness is getting in the way of a person having the life they want. The treatment is known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a series of techniques for becoming aware of negative or inaccurate ways of thinking and finding more balanced ways of seeing things.

“The goal of CBT is to become your own therapist,” Dr. Hopkins says. “Even those who don’t require therapy can learn some of these techniques and challenge their own thinking.”

If you notice your thoughts focusing on the negative, Dr. Hopkins suggests asking yourself these questions:

1. If this thing I fear actually happened, how would I cope with it?

While thinking that only the worst can happen is a sign of a cognitive distortion, you can turn it into something positive if you come up with ways to cope with that outcome. For example, if you fear losing your job, maybe you can come up with a plan for how you could support yourself or your family. That way, the fear might not be as overwhelming.

2. Even if my worst fear became reality, would it matter six months—or five years—from now?

Perhaps you are worried about passing a math test. You think that because you are struggling now that you must be bad at math, or maybe you think that you must not be smart about anything. But if you take a step back, you might be able to see that you don’t need a high grade in the class—or maybe you don’t need to pass the course at all—to be successful down the road.

3. Is there another way I can think about this situation?

Sometimes people think they know what another person is thinking or feeling, even when they don’t have proof. Or they predict what is going to happen, even though there are no facts to back up the prediction. For example, someone might think a friend was angry with them or wanted to end the relationship because the friend didn’t phone when they said they would. “Could there be another explanation?” Dr. Hopkins says. “Maybe they had a tough day and fell asleep on the couch.”

4. Do other people see the situation the same way I do?

Consider asking a trusted friend or family member if you seem to be overly negative. You can ask for their advice on alternative ways to look at situations that might be more hopeful.

5. Is there a reason I might be feeling so negative right now?

Check in with yourself to see if you are taking care of your basic physical needs. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating healthy foods? Are there things going on in your life that are particularly stressful? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then try to tend to those needs before succumbing to distorted thoughts.

6. Is there a way I can test my conclusions?

Let’s say you have convinced yourself that someone doesn’t like you, and that if they don’t like you, then you must be an unlikable person. Consider putting that assumption to the test. Ask the person out to lunch. Or ask someone else to do something pleasant with you. You might discover that you are jumping to conclusions, overgeneralizing or taking things too personally when there is another explanation.

“Communicating is critical,” Dr. Hopkins says. “Don’t assume. Try to gently check in with others and find out what is going on with them. More often than you can imagine, we’re surprised to learn what’s really happening.”

If you struggle with negative thinking, talk to your doctor or a therapist. If you need a provider, find one near you.