Cognitive distortions are negative thoughts and beliefs that you’re more likely to have if you’re depressed. Learning to recognize them can help you cope.
“I did so badly at the interview. I’m a failure. I’ll never do anything right.”
Do negative thoughts pop into your head when something goes wrong? Or do you find yourself caught in a negative thought spiral full of self-criticism and loathing?
These are cognitive distortions at work, and while everyone has them, those of us living with depression often know them too well.
According to 2018 research, self-report data suggests that cognitive distortions are more commonly seen in people with depression than those without. And an international 2020 study notes that negative thoughts are a “hallmark feature” of depression.
A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated, false, or irrational thought or belief you have.
Everyone experiences cognitive distortions at some point or another, but these automatic thoughts and beliefs — which are often negative — are typically related to depressed mood.
If you’re being bombarded with thoughts like “I’m no good” or “I’ll never be loved,” it will be hard to focus on the positive.
The theory of cognitive distortions has been around since the 1960s. Since then, it’s evolved, so you might know a related term like:
- automatic negative thoughts (ANTs)
- negative thought patterns
- thought traps
- cognitive errors
- maladaptive thoughts and beliefs
- negative cognitions
No matter what you’ve heard them called, over the years, mental health experts have outlined several types of cognitive distortions and how they relate to symptoms of depression and anxiety.
They’ve also worked to find coping strategies for challenging negative thoughts.
The 3 layers of thought
In the cognitive behavioral model, people are believed to have three layers of thoughts:
- Automatic thoughts. These are thoughts that come into your mind automatically.
- Intermediate beliefs. These beliefs are attitudes and rules, sometimes called underlying assumptions. These rules are usually followed in a typical situation — “If X, then Y.”
- Core beliefs. Core beliefs are absolute beliefs about yourself, others, and the world. They affect how we see things, and they drive rules and automatic thoughts.
All three layers are connected. Your automatic thoughts are often based on your intermediate and core beliefs. And when you work on one area — like challenging your automatic thoughts — all layers of thinking can benefit.
Any layer of thought can be distorted, but the core beliefs can be harder to challenge. Still, it’s possible.
When psychologist Dr. Aaron Beck first outlined cognitive distortions, he listed just six. Today, there’s no definitive list of cognitive distortions, though some research recognizes up to 17 types.
- mind reading
- all-or-nothing thinking
- emotional reasoning
- mental filtering
- “should” statements
- disqualifying the positives
These 10 cognitive distortions are what’s measured in the Cognitive Distortions Scale (CDS), a questionnaire used to assess the way you think.
No one can read minds, but sometimes we inadvertently think we can. Mind reading is when we assume we know what others are thinking — and often, that what they’re thinking is something negative.
The truth is that most people are focused inward, on themselves. So, when you give that group introduction and fear they’re all staring, it’s much more likely that they’re focused on their own introductions and lives.
These thoughts might look like:
- “I told that silly joke, now they all think I’m stupid.”
- “She’s quiet today, she must be mad at me.”
Catastrophizing is what Beck originally called magnification. When you catastrophize, you make predictions based on little or no evidence, magnifying the issue into the worst-case scenario.
You might think:
- “If I fail this test, I will never graduate or be able to get a job.”
- “I’m depressed, so I’m going to be depressed forever, and no one will want to be around me.”
One mistake does not make a failure. One off-day doesn’t mean you’re a terrible friend. And if you’re depressed, you deserve compassion — from others and yourself.
Catastrophizing skews your perspective, so you can go from one small error to believing you’re a horrible person.
All-or-nothing thinking is also called black-and-white thinking, polarized thinking, and dichotomous thinking. It’s when you view situations to the extreme — it’s all or nothing, either/or, and there’s no gray area.
It’s not often intentional, but you may think in extremes of:
- Everything is awful or everything is great.
- I’m perfect or I’m a failure.
All-or-nothing thinking can lead us to feel like giving up. For instance, you miss a day of doing something you promised to do every day this month — e.g., not drinking, avoiding caffeine, having a study hour — and now you’ve “failed,” so you might as well give it up, right?
Most things in life are not all or nothing. If you missed today’s goals, you can often pick up again tomorrow.
This cognitive distortion is when you let your emotions dictate reason. In other words, you believe something to be true based on your emotional response, rather than facts or objective reasoning.
You might think:
- “I’m depressed. I must be weak.”
- “I’m scared of elevators. They must be dangerous.”
- “I feel hopeless. I must really be hopeless.”
Acknowledging your emotions is important, but they don’t need to rule you. Just because you feel a certain way, it doesn’t make it true.
If you feel that you’re hopeless, for instance, it does not mean you are hopeless.
When you label someone, you’re making a judgment about them as if it defines them. Usually, these labels are negative and aimed at yourself or others.
For instance, if you just met someone who seemed stand-offish, you might call them a jerk. But maybe they’re just having a bad day or grieving. This one instance does not define who they are — but the label makes it seem so.
Instead of describing what happened (e.g., not getting the job you wanted), you attach a negative label to yourself (e.g. I’m a failure). Labeling can lead to feeling frustrated, angry, and anxious.
Not all labeling is a cognitive distortion. Sometimes you label yourself (e.g., a nerd) to feel a sense of belonging to a group or community.
Our brain is always filtering information, but the thought trap of mental filtering is when you focus on one negative thing, dwelling on it and ignoring everything else.
A common example? You give a work presentation, and everyone raves about how well-spoken and knowledgeable you were. Then your boss then gives you some feedback that you could work on looking at the audience more. That’s what you zero in on.
Instead of taking into account all the positive feedback, you focus entirely on the negative. Mental filtering can often lead to pessimism and feeling like you’re in a “dark cloud.”
Similar to mental filtering, overgeneralization happens when you focus on something negative, but turn it into a rule or pattern. It’s often marked by the words “always” and “never.”
- “I always have the worst luck.”
- “I’m never going to be happy.”
Overgeneralization can sneak its way into depression in many ways. Maybe you’ve just started treatment, and you can’t tolerate the first antidepressant at all. While there are many options available, you think: “I’ll never manage my depression.”
If you have a bad experience with a therapist, you might say all therapy isn’t right for you.
With personalization, you take things personally, assuming that you’re the cause of something or to blame.
Even if you might shoulder a little blame in some situations, in most cases, nothing is ever all your fault. And sometimes you might even blame yourself without any underlying reason.
For instance, your partner is quiet and withdrawn today. You start to think you must have done something wrong and they’re mad at you.
In fact, you may have nothing to do with their low mood, but your instinct is to personalize it and blame yourself.
“Should” statements are when you fill your self-talk with I should and I should not. While we might intend for these statements to motivate us, they often fuel guilt and elevate unattainable expectations.
- “I should have worked out after class.”
- “I must do the dishes tonight.”
- “I should take care of myself better.”
We usually create should statements to impose our expectations, but when you don’t do something you “should do,” you end up feeling guilty or as if you’ve failed.
Consider your statements and reword them to avoid:
- have to
Disqualifying the positives
When you disqualify the positives, you basically erase anything good. When you’re given a situation with both positives and negatives, you reject the positives altogether as if they never existed.
Even if you’ve made progress in therapy, you might still consider yourself “broken” because you aren’t back to your old self. Even if you’re halfway through a project, you might discount the work you’ve done and call yourself incapable.
When you discount the positives, you invalidate your joy and happiness.
Other types of cognitive distortions
- jumping to conclusions (arbitrary inference)
- fortune telling
- externalizing self-worth
- magnification and minimization
- selective abstraction
When it comes to cognitive distortions and depression, it can feel like a cycle. If you’re depressed, you’re more likely to think negatively, but negative thoughts may also increase depression severity.
But you do not need to listen to the lies that your depression tells you. With the right tools, you can challenge and rewrite your negative thoughts.
Research in 2017 found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was effective at helping people manage their automatic negative thoughts, which reduced their symptoms of depression. If you need help, you can find a therapist here.
Other coping strategies can help with cognitive distortions and depression symptoms, including humor and logging your thoughts. By recording and bringing awareness to your thoughts, you can learn to think of them more objectively.
A thought log template
Consider writing down the following to rethink cognitive distortions:
- the situation
- your moods
- the thought
- evidence that supports your thought
- evidence that opposes your thought
- an alternate thought
Many cognitive distortions can be challenged by asking yourself what evidence you have to actually back it up. Where’s the proof that everyone hates you, you’re hopeless, or you’ll be depressed forever?
Often, you’ll find that the evidence doesn’t exist.
Need next steps?
You may find it helpful to check out our 3-part series on dealing with negative thoughts:
- Part 1: Becoming aware of negative thoughts
- Part 2: Letting go of negative thoughts
- Part 3: Replacing negative thoughts