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Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Distortions (or sometimes called "Thinking Errors") are incorrect thoughts or ideas that can cause stress and/or contribute to one's well-being.  Several common distortions have been identified that arise in individuals.

Emotional Reasoning

If you could understand and know only one cognitive distortion Emotional Reasoning would be it. In my mind, this is the most important one there is because all the rest of them are repackaged emotional reasoning.  

Emotional Reasoning is making decisions or interpretations based on how we are feeling rather then the facts.  


"I felt nervous giving my speech.  It must have been a bad speech."

"I'm afraid to fly. It must be dangerous to fly."

Feelings are not facts, and should not be treated as such.  Of course they serve a purpose and can be telling us something important, but we can't live our lives based solely on how we are feeling.  Feelings are not always so easily pinned down and can often be misplaced. 


Catastrophizing is predicting or assuming the worst case scenario is the most likely outcome or the only outcome for a situation that is probably only moderately or mildly problematic. It's a form of Negative thinking that, as the name implies, involves extremely distressing thoughts



"If I'm late to work, I will get fired, then never find another job, then go broke, then lose my house, then get divorced, then probably end up on the street or in prison.”


“My Doctor wants me to call him, I must have cancer.”


Though bad things do happen in life, we need not live as if they are always going to happen. In fact, worst case scenarios are typically statistical anomalies. Most would agree a plane crash would be a catastrophe, however, their frequency is so slim that travel on airplanes is considered one of the safest available. See the statistics here.


How do I Stop Catastrophizing?

Thought diffusion, and Thought Replacement is good techniques for de-catastrophizing and for challenging negative thoughts.


Catastrophizing is also associated with a lot of Panic Symptoms. Deep Breathing is very good for reducing anxiety and panic as is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR).



Assuming you know what other people are thinking- often in regards to what they are thinking about you.


Your boss is short with you about something minor.  He's actually upset about something unrelated to you, but you "read his mind" and believe that he thinks you are not a great worker.  

Fortune Telling

Similar to mind-reading, fortune telling is assuming you know the future and it's going to be negative. This cognitive distortion is often associated with anxiety and depression. 

Example: "I'm not going to bother applying for that job because I'm not going to get it.”

“We’re never going to win”


The opposite of Filtering out the Positive is Magnification.  This is when we focus on the negative issues in our lives and make them much more serious than they actually are.  It’s also called the "binocular trick” in that looking through binoculars makes small images look bigger. 


“Even though we spent a wonderful day together as a family at the park and the lake, the flat tire we got on the way home ruined the whole day.”



Filtering is when we "filter" out the positive and only see the negative elements of a situation or one's life as a whole.


When asked how her week was, Kim talked about the flat tire and a lost earring but left out her job promotion and son's graduation from High school.


Filtering out the positive is very very common and almost a natural human process since we often feel we need to be prepared for the worst case scenario. However, it's important to try and minimize this as often as possible by challenging our negative thoughts and considering the more optimistic flip side to every situation.  Filtering out the positive can perpetuate chronic stress and depression.

Black and White Thinking

All or nothing thinking or sometimes called Absolute Thinking or Black and White thinking is when we see the world in extremes. Right and wrong, black or white, there is no room for gray or compromise. 


A student receives a B on a test and acts as if it were an F.

All or nothing thinking (sometimes called Black and White thinking or Binary Thinking) is a problem for many reasons. Seeing the world in only absolutes can keep us from appreciating life because we are so focused on the flaws.  It adds undue stress and can put a massive strain on our relationships.

One way to spot All or Nothing thinking is when we find ourselves using words that imply absolutes like “Always,” and “Never.”

“I always get picked on in class.”

“My ideas never get used.”

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