Cognitive Thinking Distortions


All of us know people who navigate life’s treacheries with grit, faith and calm.

Three divorces? No problem. I still believe in love. Bankruptcy when I should be retiring? No problem. I’ll start over. Raped as a child? No problem. I’m a fully thriving business woman now.

How do the sons of bitches do it?

Which brings us to a connected question.

What is the sign of good mental health (or a good life)?

Really, it comes down to this.

Despite all the shit (past, present and future), will my internal rythmns keeps me going?

There is little universal doubt that generally speaking, the more cooperative are your thoughts, the higher are your chances of success – however you define it. Sorry positive thinking bashers!

Making it through the days, weeks and years at my job will be so much easier if I don’t have a voice telling me “I suck!” “I can’t take this anymore”

Being a loving parent will be so much more possible if I didn’t have a voice telling me “I am selfish and a lousy role model.”

Being promoted at work will be so much more possible if I didn’t have a voice telling me “You’ll die if you catch that flight to the business meeting.”

Anxiety sufferers don’t have co-operative thoughts.

Notice I didn’t say “ridiculous” thoughts? I am not going to say that.

Yes, some of our thoughts do appear to shoot directly from crazy land. Ask any Pure-O anxiety sufferer. When the thought of yourself acting like a child molester comes out of absolutely nowhere, this seems nothing less than madness. WTF??? If you make the conclusion that this thought is ridiculous, you'll be correct.

But many of your thoughts may be conclusions of hard realities you've seen come true in your life. Who knows? Only you. If you’ve spent years fighting bullies at school and now at work with little success, the thought “I’m a wuss” may appear perfectly rational by now. Infact, endlessly fighting to disprove it may be more distorted than the thought itself.

This post is not to argue the truthfulness of every individual thoughts per se. More than anything, this post is to determine whether there are some hurtful patterns of interpreting life events that you perisistenly fall back on.

“I have not found true love so far” could be your rational thought. Over-generalizing and saying “That means I never will” is not rational. Or helpful.

“I hate thoughts of me indulging in sexual violence” is a rational thought. “I have to get rid of it or I will end up doing it” is not.

Do you follow some styles of looking at the world that make it harder for you to experience reality accurately as and when it comes about?

Take the Pure-O's example from above. It's the pattern of catastrophe and perfectionism that make the Pure-O sufferer not accept that thoughts can't be controlled. It wasn't the thought of being a child molester per se that was the problem. But how he responded to it. Which in turn is a reflection of how he responds to life in general.

The thinking patterns are the difference between an an anxiety sufferer and a non-anxiety sufferer.

The Pure-O guy heard his doctor say "We all have crazy thoughts. Not just you". But his conditioning to worry, and his obsession with perfectionism and control make acceptance of his doctor's advice impossible. "My thoughts have to be clean (perfection), my bodily sensations have to comfortable (perfection), else it's just not good enough. And I cannot survive "good enough." I am comfortable only with perfection and nothing less."

If a non-OCDer was told "You can't control thoughts, forget about it", he would forget about it. He is simply not conditioned to worry or scrutinize perfection.


What are these thinking styles that lead us down a sinking ship?

Psychotherapist and anxiety expert, Dr. Heather Stone (www.drheatherstone.com), explains these beautifully:


  1. Catastrophizing: You tell yourself that the very worst is happening or is going to happen.
  2. Overestimating Probabilities/ Underestimating Coping Response: You overestimate difficulty or danger while underestimating your ability to cope with the situation.
  3. All-or-Nothing (Black-and-White) Thinking: You view a situation in extremes rather than on a continuum.
  4. Over-generalizing: You generalize from one situation to the next, believing that future experiences will be similar or identical to past experiences.
  5. Self-Confirmatory Bias: You find "evidence" that helps you justify or maintain your belief system.
  6. Emotional Reasoning: You think something must be true simply because it "feels" true.
  7. Overvaluing Thoughts: You ascribe credibility and meaning to senseless or random thoughts.
  8. Overvaluing Sensations: You misinterpret bodily sensations as being exaggerated, life-threatening or dangerous.
  9. Worrying as Superstitious Thinking: Continuing to worry helps you feel that you will not be caught off-guard. It also feels like constant worrying could ward off the dreaded situation.
  10. Foreclosure: You focus on the possible ways that a situation might end, because it feels too hard to be in a state of uncertainty.
  11. Mind Reading: You guess what others are thinking, and refrain from checking to see whether your impressions are correct.
  12. Should Statements: You think in terms of how you, others, or the world "should" be. This type of thinking usually accompanies perfectionism and/or a rigid style of thinking.
  13. Discounting the Positive: You minimize or discount any positive feedback or perspective while maintaining a familiar, negative outlook.
  14. Beck's Negative Triad: You have a negative view of the self; negative view of the world; and negative view of the future.
  15. Read Dr Stone's list of other OCD distotions such as magical thinking, believed-in imaginings, thought-action fusion, cognitive fusion and more.

Note to reader: The above list of cognitive distortions has been entirely produced, documented and published by anxiety expert Dr. Heather Stone at www.drheatherstone.com


How can we say with confidence that these thinking styles are distorted? On the contrary, couldn't they be very, very right?

The reasons they are distorted are:

FIRST, they pretend to claim that they know the future with 100% certainty. "I just know this will happen. Because X will lead to Y will lead to Z. I'm doomed." Anxiety sufferers have a brain that is brilliant in linear thinking, making them almost gifted in critical analysis. BUT they assume they know how everything will turn out.

Sorry, even if you're the smartest person around, you are not smarter than life itself. The exact way the future will unfold is unknown. For every single person and you are no exception. X may not lead to Y, but Z may still happen. Tada!! Or X may lead to Y which leads to Zzzz, a variation of Z, but not Z.

But if you're addicted to your own predictions, and show no room for allowing alternatives, your present moment self-induced anxiety about the future will distort your perceptions about the actual future. You won't be able to see that it turned out as Zzzz. For you, your brain is hijacked by Z.

SECOND reason why thinking is distorted and not accurate. They extrapolate the past to future. Bad things may have come true before, but the past still cannot predict the future. Chances of heads will always be 50-50 when a coin is tossed even if tails won the last 21 times. The past cannot predict the future. It's just not designed to. Unless...

...you do it. If you entirely fuse with the past without wiggle room, believe it or not, you are more vested in making it come true. How does this happen? The fear of the past makes you hyper-vigilant, and the desperate hyper-vigilance starts creating distortions.

"He looks cold and aloof" (yeah because he's sick). "In the past, it meant rejection. Ouch..I'll do it first." He was sick and now he gets dumped too. While you are no happier. You just "proved" to yourself that life is indeed a bitch.

The vehicle to transport the past into the future is YOU, not the past by itself.

THIRD, thinking distortions claim to know with certainty that doom is 100% certain, mainly because they predict nothing about how well you can handle this so-called doom.

"If he leaves me" is not a crazy thought. Your fears may indeed come true. But "I will not survive that"? may not be totally true. We are so brilliant at predicting the doomed future. How about predicting that we'll be okay in this doomed future?

We have a hard time doing that because of the past. In the past, we have seen our poor coping skills when shit happens. But what if the past you doesn't have to mean a future you? See #2 above.

FOURTH, they don't fix the real problem; in fact they bypass it. Your core issues are: an overstimulated nervous system and body, difficulty sitting with ambiguity and the unknown, and the need for perfectionism and control. None of these are addressed by your thinking. So your core issues fueling anxiety remain unresolved, and get further compounded by the gasoline added by the distortions.

Ask an OCD and panic attack sufferer. The heart racing is a total bitch, but when his doctor's assured him that panic attacks are harmless, why does the OCD person insist that he'll end up in the psych ward? Because he wants present-moment confirmation of a perfect (psychosis-free) future and part of his own mind knows that the future can never be confirmed in the present.

So there you go, a real catch-22. "Screw it. I can't handle "not knowing". Of course, it's going to be psych ward for me." Does he feel better? No. He thinks he's created "proof" of his own worst fears. Now he's more trapped. He's created the very psychosis he wanted to avoid.

Conclusion: Cognitive distortions increase anxiety significantly. At the very least, they don't soothe your amygdala, but instead trigger it further.

The paradox is that they are designed with the intention to calm us down. Perhaps they do, BUT only momentarily. At least, you feel satisfied "knowing". But sooner or later, repeatedly "knowing" that life is out to get you is bound to be a downward spiral.



It's one or both of these:

1. Conditioning from childhood
2. A very active imagination.

1. Conditioning from childhood

(#Generalized Anxiety, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, OCPD)

Cognititve distortions are usually developed in childhood. The challenge with childhood is that we are not old enough to know any better, so we can't really stop the process from taking place.

What we are learning is based on whoever we are modeling. Who was in charge of your development because that's who you were role modeling?

This is a hard pill to swallow, because we don't want to fall into any kind of victim-mentality or blame-game. Don't worry. You won't. But if sorting out facts to determine what exactly went into your development is imortant to you, then please do it.

Irrespective of which family you belong to, emotional learning about the self and the world is always happening for a child, but more under the consious surface. As a child, you know your are thinking, but you're not aware of "how" your moment-to-moment thoughts are developing into patterns, and how the patterns are becoming your conditioning.

In healthy families, the development is on track. Through modeling your caretakers, you subconsciously learn how to regulate your emotions including joy, sadness and fear.

"Mom is scared because grandpa is sick, but she and I still went to the movies and had fun."

Lessons learned: 1) It's okay to be scared, it doesn't have to ruin your day. 2) Fear and happy can go together. 3) If you're scared, do things to constructively distract yourself. 4) Family is comforting and can be trusted.

Again, as a child, you don't know as such that you're having these thoughts, but your emotional learning and in turn development is still taking place.

It's no surprise then that research (1) shows that a child of an anxious parent is 2-7 times more likely to develop an anxiety condition. If left untreated and unchecked, the child is more likely to experience depression symptoms as well.

How you're developing is significantly dependent on what you're exposed to.

"Mom is freaking out again" combined with "adults know best" becomes “everything really is so scary."

"Dad doesn't say anything" and "dad is the coolest" becomes "hide your fears"

It subtle, but its happening. Not once. Not twice. But continuously. You are learning how this world operates. But who said that learning was quite accurate?

Are you the child of a parent who displays symptoms of anxiety? How does this person think and respond to life? Is it with calm and patience, or dread and panic? What is their worldview? Is it all doom and gloom, or does their world have some order and hope despite all the hardships?

Ponder over these questions even for a little bit and you may see that at least one of your parents also has an anxious disposition. And like it or not, that went into your development. When you weren't looking.

If you are conditioned to worry from childhood, recognize that the automatic, negative, self-defeating thoughts that appear as defaults have such a strong, powerful momentum because you've carried that conditioning from your formative years. A BIG PART of recovery will be learning different styles in order to give yourself a chance to re-develop again. It's worth it.


2. A very active imagination

Anxiety sufferers' brains are innately designed to deeply process information. We think more, longer, harder and deeper than others.

The more intense processing is innate. Our brain is automatically designed to think, analyze, synthesize, hypothesize, imagine, predict, find loopholes, question, organize and plan. In short, a great deal of intellectual over-stimulation, most of which is automatic.

Perhpaps you already know this, but this kind of intellectual energy gives you many advantages such as intuition, creativity, problem solving, time management and organization.

But unless you know about the way your brain works, you run the risk of being terrified of your own mind.

This is common with OCD, Phobias and Panic Disorders. You are suddenly struck by a thought about something. Such as a thought about your own thought, "why did I think that" (OCD). Or a thought about your own awareness "why do I notice so much around me?" (Phobia). Or a thought about your own body "my heart is racing more than usual" (Panic Attack).

If you knew your brain, you would know that the temptation to hypothesize, imagine and predict catastrohpe will automatically occur for you. With mindfulness, you would catch the moment and not spiral downward.

But if you don't know how your brain works, you are more likely to merge with anything its says. Because what it says comes in the form of thoughts, and your thoughts come in your own voice. The thought that "you will die with your heart racing like this" comes in your own voice. And if I don't take my own self seriously when the stakes are this high, I'd be crazy, right? This is why the temptation to believe the mind is almost impossible to ignore. Because it comes in your own voice, from your own mind. Unless you know and apply life's most critical pieces of information: "You are not your mind".


The challenges for someone who indulges in cognitive distortions are:

  1. Recognizing that he does them
  2. Getting convinced that they are distorted
  3. Believing that changing them is worth the effort
  4. Accepting that you can't "fix" thinking by forcing it to disappear. Alternative and healthier thinking gets added on, because distortions cannot be erased from the brain
  5. Agreeing on, and accepting alternatives – healthy thinking and behaviors
  6. Practicing change patiently without plunging into anger and depression
  7. Being okay with the ambiguity that comes along with doing something different


If you have anxiety, it means that your rational thinking is not able to calm your overreacting nerves. Why is that? It's because your thinking itself may be somewhat distorted. It follows patterns that lead you down instead of lift you up.

Perfectionism, all-or-nothing, over-generalization, catastrophizing, emotional reasoning etc are all patterns we've developed to override our fears, but they dig a bigger and deeper hole, one that gets harder to climb out of.

Why did we ever allow ourselves to think like this? It happened way back at a time when we weren't equipped to know any better. Maybe we modeled anxiety and mistook it for healthy living. 

And then, of course there's also the way our mind innately works. The creativity of our minds to instantly jump and picture ahead is nothing less than genius. The way the mind takes this journey into the future is genius, but the conclusions made about the future are not . Mistaking a hypothesized future with the actual future is distorted - no matter how "believable" it seems right now. No one is equipped to know the future or the exact way it will unfold.

But knowledge is (half) power. The other half is action. Now that we know we have a tendency to get distorted, we can try to do something else. We can learn new ways of thinking and looking at the world. We learned it the first time. We can totally do it again.


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