Cognitive Distortions: The Worst Always Happens. Or Does it?

By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

When we talk about anxiety, cognitive distortions almost always come up. Why is that? Well, for starters, they are easy to identify when our thoughts are racing and intrusive. But did you know cognitive distortions happen with depression, too? It’s true!

In this post, were going to explore how the filters of cognitive distortion that that darn amygdala uses impact your depression levels. Personally, I think identifying the cognitive distortions is a big and important part in treating depression. Why? Because they are part of what triggers depressive thoughts in our brain.

What are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions operate a lot like a pair of sunglasses. When cognitive distortions are operating, they filter what information we are collecting from the world around us. Unfortunately, what we see tends to be the negative thing that gives that darn amygdala a louder voice. Everyone uses cognitive distortions in their life. This is something, when used in moderation, helps us prepare for future stress and keeps us safe. Below, you will find the most common cognitive distortions that darn amygdala uses to keep us stressed and anxious:

  • Catastrophizing​
    • Seeing the worst thing possible​
    • “I got a C on my exam, the world is over!”
  • Minimizing
    • Experiences aren’t important​
    • “It was just a little fender bender, not a big deal”
  • Overgeneralizing​
    • A single event will always happen​
    • “I stubbed my toe on the table, I’m such a clutz!”
  • Magical Thinking
    • Acts influence unrelated situations​
    • “Why am I getting dumped on by the boss?  I’m a good worker!”​
  • Personalization​
    • Being responsible for things outside of your control​
    •  “If I made dinner more maybe my wife wouldn’t be so cranky”
  • Mind Reading​
    • Interpreting what people are thinking​
    • “Why is everyone looking at me?  Am I really that ugly?”
  • Fortune Telling​
    • Predicting the future without all the facts​
    •  “They are going to call me in on my day off, I know it!”
  • Emotional Reasoning
    • Assuming emotions reflect what is happening​
    • “Today is shitty because I feel shitty”
  • Disqualifying the positive​
    • Only focusing on the negative​
    •  “Everyone liked my new shoes except for Amy G. Dala (see what I did there?).  My shoes must be bad if she doesn’t like them.”
  • “Should” Statements
    • Believing things should be a certain way​
    •  “I should get this done, I should get that done.”
  • All-or-Nothing​
  • Thinking in absolutes
  • “I always have to be my best.”  “I am never good enough.”​

Struggling with depression? You are note alone!

How many of these looks and sound familiar? I bet more than a few. Sometimes we use these cognitive distortions without even recognizing it (even several at one time). It is important to identify which cognitive distortions we are using before we are able to challenge them. Once we know what we are facing, we can use some of the challenges below.

Challenging Cognitive Distortions

man wearing black tank top and brown shorts climbing rock

Challenging cognitive distortions helps depression and the brain in several ways. First, it allows the prefrontal cortex to get in on the conversation that darn amygdala is trying to control. Second, it allows for the release of those calming neurotransmitters, GABA and serotonin, to be released physically calming us down. Third, it releases glutamate into the hippocampus to help recall memories to further help release the neurotransmitters serotonin and GABA.

The time it takes from the moment we recognize the cognitive distortion in use, to feeling relief can be up to 15 minutes. But in those 15 minutes, we are strengthening the connection between the prefrontal cortex and that darn amygdala to help prevent future hostage situations where that darn amygdala is running the show. Isn’t science fun?

we have to ask ourselves if there are other ways to interpret that thought

Carissa Weber

Coping Skills Alert!

In order to challenge a cognitive distortion, we must first identify the thought that is giving fuel to the cognitive distortion. Once that thought is identified, we have to identify and explore all the facts surrounding that thought. Once that step is complete, explore if any of these are true objective facts that anyone could prove or if they are feelings and emotions you are experiencing.

Here comes the tricky step: we have to ask ourselves if there are other ways to interpret that thought. For example, if we are focused on stress eating that pound of chocolate. Are we truly hungry, or our we eating for a different reason (like that we’re stressed, or even eating it so we don’t have to share with the kids).

Now for all of you who catastrophize situations (like me), we need to ask ourselves that nagging question: is this a realistic thought or a worst-case scenario kind of thought?

Cognitive Distortions and Mindfulness

Another effective coping skill for tackling cognitive distortions is the use of mindfulness. As outlined in one of my previous posts, Stress and the Brain: Happy Stress Awareness Month, it can provide a release of serotonin that calms the body down. For those with shutdown anxiety, it can help improve their frustration tolerance.

One of my favorite mindfulness exercises is deep breathing. This is something that you can do when you are out in public or in the privacy of your own home. Even though I have outlined it already, let me take some time to outline deep breathing exercises one more time:

  • Sit in a comfortable position
  • Slowly inhale through your nose and into your diaphragm (to make it simple, breath so that your belly expands) for 6 seconds
  • Hold that process in your belly for two seconds
  • Slowly exhale out of your mouth for eight seconds, or until you feel like you have no breath left
  • Repeat this pattern of breathing for 3 to 5 minutes (or however long it takes for you to feel calm).
  • If you want evidence the deep breathing is working, take your heart rate before you start the deep breathing. After each minute of practicing the breathing, take your heart rate again. Your heart rate will go down!

I want to thank you for reading this post. Cognitive distortions play a huge role in our mental health. Being able to recognize them, and challenge them, can help make our mental health recovery so much better.

To recap this post:
– Cognitive Distortions are filters our darn amygdala use to justify its reactions
– Everyone uses cognitive distortions
– Identifying and challenging the cognitive distortions can improve your mental health
– Mindfulness can help when cognitive distortions are hard to ignore

Bonus Material!

With your purchase of the worksheet bundle, you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) go over cognitive distortions, and mindful breathing. Enjoy!

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4 responses to “Cognitive Distortions: The Worst Always Happens. Or Does it?”

  1. I’ve always found our brain and thinking patterns and beliefs to be SO fascinating! I read a lot about manifesting and the law of attraction so I especially appreciated the mindfulness esction of this post. Thank you for sharing this; very interesting to read a more logical/rational perspective.

    1. It is so interesting how are brain works! I think it gives a lot of people New Hope when it comes to treating their mental health as well. I will for sure be writing more about how our brain can move from impulsive the proactive 🙂

  2. I definitely struggle with should statements! I find myself “should-ing” on myself often. But I’ve become more aware of it recently and am working to strengthen that connection between my prefrontal cortex and my amygdala. Great post. Our mental health is such an important aspect of our overall wellbeing 🙂

  3. That is amazing to here!

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