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What Are Cognitive Distortions?

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Updated November 05, 2013

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which came first, the depression symptoms or the pessimistic thoughts? I can't answer the first question, but the answer to the latter may surprise you.

In many cases, depression actually is the result of habitual negative thoughts, called cognitive distortions. When bad things happen, we begin chastising ourselves with thoughts such as: I'm no good, I'm a total failure or Nothing ever goes my way. Our feelings follow what we are thinking, and negative thoughts like these can send us spiraling down into depression.

This concept is the guiding principle behind cognitive therapy, a type of psychotherapy developed by psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s. If we think something often enough, we begin to believe it's true and our feelings match what we are thinking about ourselves. To conquer depression, we must stop those automatic negative thoughts and replace them with more positive, truthful ones. By nipping these thoughts in the bud, we can halt depression before it even starts.

Cognitive therapy is directed at 10 common cognitive distortions, or faulty thought patterns, that send us into depression. See if you recognize yourself in any of these.

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking: John recently applied for a promotion in his firm. The job went to another employee with more experience. John wanted this job badly and now feels that he will never be promoted. He feels that he is a total failure in his career.
  • Overgeneralization: Linda is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends sometimes ask her to come out for dinner and meet new people. Linda feels that that is it useless to try to meet people. No one really could like her. People are all mean and superficial anyway.
  • Mental Filter: Mary is having a bad day. As she drives home, a kind gentleman waves her to go ahead of him as she merges into traffic. Later in her trip, another driver cuts her off. She grumbles to herself that there are nothing but rude and insensitive people in her city.
  • Disqualifying the Positive: Rhonda just had her portrait made. Her friend tells her how beautiful she looks. Rhonda brushes aside the compliment by saying that the photographer must have touched up the picture. She never looks that good in real life, she thinks.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: Chuck is waiting for his date at a restaurant. She's now 20 minutes late. Chuck laments to himself that he must have done something wrong and now she has stood him up. Meanwhile, across town, his date is stuck in traffic.
  • Magnification and Minimization: Scott is playing football. He bungles a play that he's been practicing for weeks. He later scores the winning touchdown. His teammates compliment him. He tells them he should have played better; the touchdown was just dumb luck.
  • Emotional Reasoning: Laura looks around her untidy house and feels overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning. She feels that it's hopeless to even try to clean.
  • Should Statements: David is sitting in his doctor's waiting room. His doctor is running late. David sits stewing, thinking, "With how much I'm paying him, he should be on time. He ought to have more consideration." He ends up feeling bitter and resentful.
  • Labeling and Mislabeling: Donna just cheated on her diet. I'm a fat, lazy pig, she thinks.
  • Personalization: Jean's son is doing poorly in school. She feels that she must be a bad mother. She feels that it's all her fault that he isn't studying.

If you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself, then you're halfway there. Here's a homework assignment for you: Over the next few weeks, monitor the self-defeating ways in which you respond to situations. Practice recognizing your automatic responses. Now, we will take each of the above cognitive distortions and discuss some powerful coping strategies that will help you dispel the blues before they even start.

  1. About.com
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  6. What Are Cognitive Distortions and How Can You Defeat Them?

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