Cognitive distortions, or “stinking thinking,” are negative or irrational thoughts that lack evidence and influence how you feel and behave.

Everyone experiences cognitive distortions to some degree — they’re a natural part of being human. But when they happen too frequently or in more extreme forms, they can be harmful and contribute to problems, such as anxiety
and depression.

There are many ways to manage negative thoughts in the moment and begin to change the pattern of “stinking thinking.”

The first step in managing stinking thinking is understanding the different types of cognitive distortions, so you can recognize them when they happen.

All-or-nothing thinking, sometimes called “black-and-white thinking,” is the tendency to think in absolutes.

“I have do it right or not do it at all.”

It may help to keep a thought record. By recording your thoughts, including the feelings and behaviors that
accompany them, you can begin to recognize when you’re thinking in absolutes.

Overgeneralization is seeing a pattern based upon a single event or being overly broad when drawing conclusions.

“I felt awkward on my date. I’m always so awkward.”

A helpful technique in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is cognitive restructuring. This is when you bring your thoughts into focus and examine them for irrational thinking. Consider asking yourself:

  • Am I basing my thoughts on facts or feelings?
  • What is the evidence for this thought?
  • Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
  • Am I viewing this situation as black and white when it’s more complicated?

A mental filter is when you only pay attention to certain types of evidence or focus on the negative.

For example, you focus on one criticism in an otherwise positive performance review at work.

In this case, you might ask:

  • What am I worried about?
  • Is it likely to come true?
  • If it does come true, what’s the worst that could happen? What’s most likely to happen?

You discount the good things that have happened or feel like your accomplishments don’t count.

“My answer doesn’t count because it was a lucky guess.”

Try re-framing it to something positive, like “It was bold of me to take a stab at it.”

We do this when we interpret the meaning of a situation with little or no evidence. It can come in the form of the following:

  • Mind reading: imagining we know what others think or believe. For example, you may think “He canceled our date. He must not think I’m attractive. ”
  • Fortune telling: predicting the future. For example, you may say “The doctor is going to tell me I have cancer.”

Consider asking:

  • Can I really predict the future or read people’s minds?
  • Is it helpful to try?
  • What is more helpful?

Here, you exaggerate the importance of a problem or assume the worst possible outcome.

“If I fail this test, I won’t pass the class, and I’ll flunk out of school.”

Sometimes it can help to focus on what you can do about the situation.

In a 2017 qualitative study of patients with low back pain and high catastrophizing, most reported that
focusing on tangible and solvable problems resulted in coping behaviors that interrupted their negative thinking.

Consider what coping skills you can use to handle your feared situation. What have you done in the past that was successful?

This is when negative feelings inform your thoughts without facts to support those thoughts.

For example, you may say “I feel like nobody likes me”. This may be brought on by feelings of loneliness, even though you have friends. Again, try to examine the evidence.

It can also help to identify the emotion you’re feeling that led to the negative thought.

If you have trouble pinpointing the emotion, focus on the behavior you want to change. See if you can determine what’s triggering that behavior.

These statements often include words like “should,” “must,” or “ought.”

“I should always be friendly, organized, nice, etc.”

“Should” statements can lead to feelings of guilt or like you’ve already failed at something. Try to set realistic goals for yourself, aiming for progress, not perfection.

As the name suggests, it’s assigning labels to ourselves or other people.

“I get so upset with myself when I make a mistake,” or “I feel bad when I let others down.”

Consider making a list of strengths or positives you might be ignoring. Try to give yourself grace during this time.

This is the belief that you’re responsible for events outside of your control.

“Our team lost because of me.”

In these moments, mindfulness (present-moment awareness without judgment) can be very effective.

It allows you to take a step back from your inner voice, label it, and focus on the task at hand. Research from 2019 shows that mindfulness can also help decrease anxiety and depression.

If you find it difficult to manage stinking thinking on your own, it may help to get a professional’s support. Consider speaking with a therapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

There are also many tools and resources that can help with managing cognitive distortions, including: