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Cognitive Distortions

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Anxiety and Depression – How to Help Yourself by Checking for
Common Errors in Thinking (a.k.a. Cognitive Distortions)

Anxiety and depression are common in our society. One way to help yourself if you are feeling anxious or depressed is to check your thinking. As first identified in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), there are certain types of thinking errors that are common among people experiencing anxiety or depression. This type of thinking feels true to us and tricks us into believing in its validity, but if you stop and check you will find that this type of thinking is illogical and/or not based on real solid evidence.

Following is a list of the most common types of cognitive distortions that lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. Read it over and see if you can identify any that you make. If you are depressed or anxious, it is likely you are making several of these on a regular basis.

1. All or Nothing Thinking (a.k.a. Black & White Thinking) – This person sees things in an extreme way, with either/or categories. If a situation falls short of complete perfection, it is a failure. Ex. “Since I still remember the trauma, I must not be getting better at all,” or “Since I ate that cookie, I totally blew my diet.”

2. Overgeneralizing – this person sees a certain situation as indicating there is a never-ending pattern that happens over and over again. Ex. “I always screw everything up. This is going to ruin my life forever,” or “Since I got butterflies in my stomach when I did my speech, that means I’ll never get a handle on my anxiety.”

Cognitive Distortions

3. Mental Filtering (a.k.a. Magnifying the Negative) – this person focuses only on the negative aspects of a situation and ignores the positive aspects. Ex. Since my voice was shaky when I spoke to the group, I blew it. They must have hated my presentation.”

4. Discounting the Positive – Positive experiences or achievement are discounted, dismissed or don’t count. They may deny their success, believing that it was just luck or chance. People who discount the positive rarely feel a healthy sense of pride or satisfaction. Ex. Abby’s boss thanks for her great work, but she dismisses it saying anyone could have done it. Brad feels like a failure as a father and discounts the times his wife and friends have told him he is a great father.

5. Jumping to Conclusions – the person makes assumptions or interprets a situation negatively without any evidence to support the assumption/interpretation and yet, believes it to be true. Ex. “I didn’t get a call yet. I must not have gotten the job.”
a. Often the conclusion the person comes to is really just that person’s fear being mirrored back at them. So in the example, it would be more accurate to say: “I’m afraid I didn’t get the job.” At least by acknowledging it’s just the person’s fear, the person allows for the possibility they may be wrong about the situation.

6. Mind-Reading – Similar to jumping to conclusions, this is more specifically when a person thinks they know what is going on inside another person’s head without checking out if it’s true. The assumption is that the other person is thinking something negative. Ex. “He thinks I’m stupid. I just know it,” or “He didn’t respond to my text right away. He must be mad at me,” or “She gave me a funny look, I must have done something wrong.”
a. Again, this is often just the person’s biggest fear mirrored back at them.

Cognitive Distortions

7. Fortune Telling – A version of jumping to conclusions, this person predicts that things will turn out badly for them in the future without any solid evidence. Ex. “I can try to fix the situation, but I will probably mess it up even worse.”

8. Catastrophizing (aka Worst Case Scenario Thinking) – Again, this is similar to jumping to conclusions/mind reading/fortune telling, but it involves the person taking a situation in their mind to the worst possible outcome and expecting it to come true, while also minimizing the person’s ability to cope. Ex. “This pain in my chest must be a heart attack and I am helpless to do anything about it,” or “I made a mistake on that project. I’m going to lose my job and no one else will want to hire me.”

9. Emotional Reasoning – this person has a tendency to assume that his or her negative feelings reflect the way things actually are. Ex. “I feel ashamed. I must deserve the bad things that happen to me.”

10. Labeling – this is a form of all or nothing thinking in which the person attaches general labels to him-or herself or to others based on one mistake. Ex. “I forgot it was pajama day. I am a bad mom,“ or “He didn’t call me back. He’s a jerk.”

11. Personalization – The person assumes full responsibility for situations or problems that are not completely under his or her control. Ex. “Because I yelled at him, he started drinking again.”

12. Should/Should not Statements – another version of black or white thinking, the person tells him or herself how he or she ought to act, think or feel, or how other people or things ought to be. It is seen as a “must” or a “have-to”. Ex. “I need to please everyone,” or “I should make everyone happy,” or “he should have called me back right away.”

13. Control Error – this one can be a little bit harder for people to grasp. This person believes that other people cause him or her to feel certain ways. Ex. “She makes me so angry. I can’t help it.” The truth is that people can have many different reactions to another person or an event. How one reacts is really about how that person interprets the event or other person’s behavior. For example, when the airplane that almost crashed landed safely on the Hudson River, some people were very upset and angry about how they had to go through such a horrible ordeal. Other people, however, felt that it was a miracle and that they were lucky and blessed and were very happy. Another example is seeing a child crying in the store. One person may think “that child is a spoiled brat,” and feel annoyed, while another person may think “I bet that child is hungry or tired, poor kid,” and feel sympathy. So no one else and nothing is causing you to feel a certain way; it is how you interpret the person/event.

Coherence Therapy


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Susannah Muller, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist #49050
San Diego Counseling & Therapy
5230 Carroll Canyon Rd., Suite 314, San Diego, CA 92121
(619) 787-2743

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