We all perceive the world from unique perspectives, but when our thought processes consistently cause distress or negative outcomes, we might be experiencing what are termed cognitive distortions. These are more than just differing opinions or viewpoints. They represent pervasive or chronic mistakes in reasoning that skew our interpretation of reality. The consequences of cognitive distortions can extend to anxiety, depression, interpersonal conflicts, and other life complications. Fortunately, through therapeutic interventions and positive lifestyle practices such as cognitive journaling, it’s possible to alter these detrimental thought patterns.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
Simply put, cognitive distortions are irrational or unrealistic ways of thinking. Almost everyone experiences irrational thoughts at some point in life. For example, if you get poor feedback on a project, you may have moments of self-doubt.
Intrusive thoughts, such as “I’m terrible at this,” may arise but then pass as you realize you’re not actually terrible at whatever you’re trying to do, you’re just a beginner or need to learn more or practice to improve. Cognitive distortions are common and are some of the main issues that mental health professionals target in therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
When these types of negative thoughts become the norm, they can have an unhelpful impact on your quality of life. Cognitive distortions can negatively affect the logical way of making decisions. These distortions also can cause you a great deal of stress and increase feelings of anxiety and depression.
It’s unclear exactly how cognitive distortions develop. One study on cognitive distortions, humor styles, and depression concluded that a self-defeating humor style is associated with automatic thoughts that, over time, trigger certain feelings and behaviors. Experiencing a certain emotion may lead to a connected thought subconsciously. In other words, this way of thinking becomes a habit.
Most people think first and feel later. Emotions are generated by primitive parts of the brain that don’t necessarily follow logic. Cognitive distortions are most likely to appear when a person feels threatened. During times of stress and fear, the part of the brain responsible for survival takes over. Our brains constantly try their best to protect us. However, the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for our fight or flight instincts, may interpret your anxiety as a life or death situation when, in fact, it’s just a midterm exam or a work presentation.
Children exhibit this method of thinking well. Their brains aren’t yet fully developed, so they react strongly to many situations. Childhood is when many people develop cognitive distortions.
For instance, if you were taught that girls don’t do well in math, you may assume your poor performance in math is because of your biology and not because you didn’t study well.
10 Common Types of Cognitive Distortions
There are different types of cognitive distortions. People who are prone to negative thinking may exhibit specific patterns of distortion, or they might engage in various unhelpful habits.
1. Catastrophic Thinking
Do you have a habit of expecting the worst? If so, you might be a catastrophic thinker. People with this type of cognitive distortion habit often play the “what if” game. Being late for school can start a chain reaction of catastrophic thoughts that spirals into worries about failing classes, never getting a good job, and ending up homeless.
Catastrophic thinking is influenced by and related to anxiety and depression. People stuck in this thinking pattern may have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships and making good choices because they tend to view everything as pointless.
2. Polarized Thinking
Polarized thinking is also referred to as black-and-white thinking. People with this habit tend to see things as good or bad, right or wrong, with no room for compromise. Polarized thinking makes it difficult to understand another person’s perspective.
The inability to compromise can sabotage your success in personal and professional relationships.
People who overgeneralize often make an assumption based on one experience. For instance, if they have one negative travel experience, they may decide they hate to travel. Overgeneralization can lead to a negative worldview and an expectation of defeat.
If you frequently feel targeted or excluded or are in the habit of comparing yourself to others, you may be experiencing personalization. This type of cognitive distortion leads you to believe the actions or opinions of others are a direct reaction to you.
Believing you are responsible for events out of your control is a sign of personalization.
5. Discounting the Positive
Discounting the positive is also known as filtering. Filtering refers to leaving out any information about an event except the negative information. For example, if you discount the positive, you may ignore your partner’s praise and focus only on their complaint.
6. Mind Reading
Drawing conclusions without evidence is known as mind reading or jumping to conclusions. You may not actually think you can read someone’s mind, but you may assume a single action means something deeper than it really does. If a friend is late for a lunch date, a person with this cognitive distortion habit might conclude that the friendship is over.
7. Emotional Reasoning
You might be in a cycle of emotional reasoning if you rely on your emotions over objective evidence. This type of cognitive distortion can lead to poor decision-making. For example, if you “feel” you did poorly at a job interview, you may decide you are bad at interviews and give up on your career search.
Avoiding emotional reasoning doesn’t mean you should discount your intuition. It does mean you should consider all the available information before drawing a conclusion.
Exaggerating shortcomings is an example of magnification. Magnification often happens in conjunction with discounting the positive. For example, if you’re concerned about your child going to summer camp and they become sick while camping, you might see it as proof that camp is dangerous.
Magnification includes magnifying negative qualities while minimizing the positive ones.
Labeling involves defining yourself or someone else by a behavior. If you don’t study as much as you need to and fail a test, you might label yourself a failure. If someone else has a stressful day and loses their temper just once, you might label them as a hot head.
Labeling yourself or others is a cognitive distortion because it doesn’t represent an accurate picture of that person. A single behavior shouldn’t define anyone.
10. Should Statements
Should statements represent those things you think you must do to be worthy. You “should” be a perfect parent who never runs out of patience. If you’re not perfect, you’re terrible. The inability to live up to “shoulds” can leave you feeling guilty and lower your self-esteem.
A Powerful Technique for Addressing Cognitive Distortions: Cognitive Journaling
The first step to changing any type of unwanted behavior is recognizing it. Journaling can help you identify cognitive distortions so you can take action. Writing your thoughts provides an opportunity to observe them. Journaling alone won’t bring about change, but it will shine a light on patterns of thinking and behaving.
What is Cognitive Journaling?
The method of journaling that specifically intends to bring awareness to thinking patterns is called cognitive journaling.
Cognitive journaling is a systematic journaling technique developed by psychiatrist Dr. Richard Ragnarson. In this approach to journaling, you write down thoughts to help you observe your thought patterns and reframe those that don’t serve you. Cognitive journaling is rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps you identify negative thought patterns and behaviors that cause you distress and work to change them. Cognitive journaling provides essentially the same function, but you do it independently and through writing instead of talk therapy.
What Are the Benefits of Cognitive Journaling?
Cognitive journaling helps you overcome negative thought patterns that don’t serve you. You can then replace these adverse ways of thinking and believing with those that are more grounded in truth and reality.
Other benefits of cognitive journaling include:
- Self-reflection. Cognitive journaling helps you consider your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
- Challenging negative thoughts. Cognitive distortions impact your life because they make you think negative things about people and the world around you that aren’t necessarily based on facts. Cognitive journaling helps you challenge and reframe these thoughts.
- Emotional regulation. Cognitive journaling helps you regulate your emotions by understanding where they originate and reflecting on their accuracy. By better understanding the origins of your thinking, you can decide if you want to change the way you view something and how it makes you feel.
- Stress reduction. Understanding your thoughts and feelings and logic (or lack thereof) behind them helps you feel more in control of your life and decisions. This control helps empower your decision-making and reduces stress.
How to Get Started with Cognitive Journaling
Traditional journaling involves writing down your thoughts, memories, or events. It’s often used as a way to gain insight into an issue or to simply release negative emotions. Cognitive journaling goes a step further. Cognitive journaling is a conscious attempt to observe your behaviors and stop negative thinking patterns.
According to Dr. Ragnarson, all life events can be divided into three categories. These categories are referred to as the “ABC model” and include:
- An activating event (A)
- Your belief(s) about that event (B)
- The consequences (C) of A and B combined
Restructuring cognitive distortions begins with challenging your beliefs. Writing about activating events and your beliefs about those events is a start. Cognitive journaling will give you the documentation needed to recognize patterns or habits you want to change.
Cognitive journaling typically happens in three steps:
- Describe an emotional event as objectively as possible. Leave your personal feelings or judgments aside.
- Write about how these observations connect with your thoughts and emotions. For instance, if you are documenting a disagreement you had with a friend, your emotions might be anger, sadness, or frustration. Observing your emotions as if you were observing a stranger increases awareness. You may have ended the disagreement feeling angry, but with closer examination, you realized you were actually embarrassed because you lost your temper. This step encourages self-reflection. It’s a time to observe the way a scientist might—with no assumptions or preconceived conclusions.
- Challenge your assumptions and ways of thinking. Did your friend actually say you are selfish and always wrong, or are those the conclusions you jumped to? Challenging your thinking patterns allows room to start changing distorted thoughts.
Questions for cognitive journaling may include:
- What was the emotional event?
- What thoughts did I have about the emotional event?
- What was my emotional response to the event?
- What beliefs do I have about the emotional event?
- Is my belief based on facts or emotions?
- What evidence do I have that my belief is correct?
- What evidence do I have that my belief is incorrect?
- Is there a way to test my belief?
- What is the worst that can happen, and how would I respond?
- What alternative ways I could interpret this information?
Questions like these will help you generate new ways of looking at things. You may discover that your initial reaction is not based on reality. You might realize that a situation is not as cut and dry as you thought and that there is room for compromise. These types of realizations help you to reframe negative thought patterns.
Working with a mental health professional can be helpful, but you can do cognitive restructuring on your own.
Journal Prompts for Addressing Cognitive Distortions
Journal prompts are an effective tool for enhancing your journaling process. To address cognitive distortions, prompts that help explore and challenge distorted thoughts and those that help reframe your thinking are particularly helpful.
Consider using some of these prompts in your next journaling session:
- Which type(s) of cognitive distortions do I most often experience?
- How do cognitive distortions appear in my daily life?
- What is a recurring negative belief that negatively impacts my life? What evidence is there to support that belief?
- When was the last time my emotions influenced my behavior? What were the consequences?
- What coping strategies do I typically use when faced with an obstacle?
- What is a positive thing I’ve accomplished today?
- What are three things that trigger my negative thinking habits?
- Do I truly believe the cognitive distortions I think about myself or others?
- How are my thoughts connected to my behaviors?
- Explain the differences in facts and opinions.
- How can I better align my core beliefs with my actions?
- What words of support can I offer myself today?
To get the most benefits from journal prompts, do your best to write without censoring yourself. Let one thought lead to another, even if you’re not answering the prompt exactly. If you have difficulty writing freely, try the stream-of-consciousness writing method.
With stream-of-consciousness writing, you do not stop writing for the allotted time. Don’t correct your spelling or worry about proper grammar. If you run out of things to say before the time is up, write nonsense words or repeat the same sentence until your train of thought returns.
Wrapping Up: To Boosting Well-Being and Mental Wellness
Cognitive distortions are a natural part of the human experience. When they control your thoughts and decision-making process, it can cause a negative chain reaction. Seeing the world through cognitive distortions can impact every aspect of your life. Your career, relationships, education, and mental health may suffer.
Cognitive journaling and using journaling prompts can help you identify and reframe irrational thought patterns. Whether you use cognitive journaling as a tool in traditional therapy or explore the process alone, it can provide many benefits.
About the Author
Hannah Van Horn, MCMHC, LPC-C, is a mental health professional who specializes in helping trauma survivors navigate their healing journey. She is an advocate for making mental health accessible for all through written and digital content as well as face-to-face counseling services.