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Cognitive Distortion

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Updated January 28, 2013

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Definition:

We all have negative thoughts from time to time, and this is especially the case for people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, negative thoughts are so common in certain mental health disorders that mental health professionals have come up with a specific term to describe them -- cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions refer to unpleasant thoughts that are extreme, exaggerated, and/or not consistent with what is actually going on in the real world. As a result, cognitive distortions can have a negative influence on our mood and eventually lead to unhealthy behaviors. The connection between thoughts and actions is part of the reason cognitive distortions are considered a central part of cognitive behavioral therapy.

For example, let's say you commonly have the thought, "I will always be depressed." Whenever this thought pops into your head, you will likely start feeling sad, down, hopeless, and helpless. Because of this, you may start to isolate yourself or avoid activities that you used to enjoy. This is then only going to increase the chance that your depression worsens and sticks around. This thought is a cognitive distortion. It is highly unlikely that you will always feel depressed. There may still be times when you feel a little better. In addition, looking at your past, chances are you haven't always been depressed. So, while it may feel like you will always be depressed, in reality your depression may come and go.

Listed below are some common cognitive distortions that may contribute to a negative mood.

All-or-None Thinking

  • Definition: Looking at a situation as either black or white; thinking that there are only two possible outcomes to a situation
  • Example: "If I am not a complete success at my job, then I am a total failure."

Catastrophizing

  • Definition: Expecting the worse to happen without considering other alternative outcomes that are more likely to happen
  • Example: "I know that I will be so anxious that I will bomb this test and fail the course."

Labeling

  • Definition: Defining yourself or others in a rigid way that doesn't allow for more favorable evaluations
  • Example: "I am a total loser."

Discounting the Positive

  • Definition: Looking past and ignoring positive experiences; viewing positive experiences or outcomes as simply being due to chance
  • Example: "I got that job out of luck, not because I was qualified."

Mind Reading

  • Definition: Thinking that you know what others are thinking
  • Example: "I just know that my therapist thinks I am a waste of his time."

Personalization

  • Definition: Evaluating other people's behavior as being the result of something you did
  • Example: "She wasn't very polite toward me because I must have done something to upset her."

Emotional Reasoning

  • Definition: Believing something is true because it feels that way
  • Example: "I must have failed that test because I feel so bad about my performance."

These are just a few cognitive distortions that people commonly experience (you can learn about others from the About.com Guide to Depression).

Also Known As: Maladaptive Thoughts, Errors in Thinking, Negative Thoughts, Irrational Thoughts
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  3. Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD)
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  5. Cognitive Distortions - Definition of Cognitive Distortions

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