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What are Cognitive Distortions in CBT?

Cognitive distortions or ‘unhelpful thinking styles’ are ways that our thoughts can become biased. As conscious beings we are always interpreting the world around us, trying to make sense of what is happening.
A young girl looking at a reflection of herself
© University of East Anglia

As we have already seen, anxiety is a combination of thoughts, feelings and behaviour, with each effecting the other.

What are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions or ‘unhelpful thinking styles’ are ways that our thoughts can become biased. As conscious beings we are always interpreting the world around us, trying to make sense of what is happening.

Sometimes our brains take ‘short cuts’ and generate results that are not completely accurate. Different cognitive short cuts result in different kinds of bias or distortions in our thinking. Sometimes we might jump to the worst possible conclusion, at other times we might blame ourselves for things that are not our fault.

Cognitive Distortions in CBT

Cognitive distortions happen automatically – we don’t mean to think inaccurately – but unless we learn to notice them, they can have powerful yet invisible effects upon our moods and our lives. Cognitive distortions were first noted by Aaron Beck in his research with depressed patients in the 1960’s. They formed a central part of his cognitive theory of depression and, later, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

What’s a cognitive distortion and why do so many people have them?

Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true.

Cognitive Distortions are Usually Negative

These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions – telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.

For instance, a person might tell themselves, “I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try.” This is an example of “black or white” (or polarized) thinking. The person is only seeing things in absolutes – that if they fail at one thing, they must fail at all things. If they added, “I must be a complete loser and failure” to their thinking, that would also be an example of overgeneralization – taking a failure at one specific task and generalizing it their very self and identity.

© University of East Anglia
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