Primary cognitive distortions (negative thinking styles)

Cognitive distortion forms the backbone of PTSD. Whether you know it or not, all moods and behavioral patterns originate from your cognitions-- your thoughts. The first thing that happens is a thought, and then a mood or behavior occurs.

When you allow an area of your life to become dominated by negative thoughts, you'll come to believe things are as bad as you -- frequently incorrectly-- imagine them to be.

This leaves us at identifying cognitive distortions and rationalizing them. An often-seen mistake occurs when you feel better rather quickly and assume you are completely better. This does not mean you have mastered the techniques and improved your longevity: you are merely having a spontaneous, false burst of positivity. These techniques take months, if not years, to truly master and then you have to use them the remainder of your life. To be effective, you must know your distortions as well as you know your own phone number.

Interesting Tip: Did you know your mood creates physical symptoms? Constipation, diarrhea, pain, insomnia or too much sleep, fatigue, loss of sexual interest, dizziness, trembling, numbness and more, are all physical symptoms presented solely based on your mood.

The 10 primary cognitive distortions are:
  1. All or nothing thinking -- You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  2. Over-generalization -- You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Mental filter -- You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it so exclusively that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that colors the entire beaker of water.
  4. Disqualifying the positive -- You reject positive experiences by insisting they "don't count" for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
  5. Jumping to conclusions -- You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. (Involves mind-reading and fortune-telling.)
  6. Magnification and minimization -- You exaggerate the importance of things, or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny.
  7. Emotional reasoning -- You assume that your emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are, as in "I feel it, therefore it must be true."
  8. Should statements -- You try to motivate yourself with "should" and "should not," as if you have to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything.
  9. Labeling and mislabeling -- This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself.
  10. Personalization -- You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible for.
Did you know most depressed and anxious persons are convinced beyond all reason they're the one that is beyond hope? This delusion itself reflects a cognitive distortion. Can you identify which?

All-or-Nothing Thinking (Dichotomous Thinking)

To put this as simply as possible, you think in extremes: black-and-white thinking and perfectionism. Perfectionism causes you to fear any mistake; a mistake makes you conclude that you're a loser. Life is never this simple, one way or the other.

Look at the floor of the room you're in now. Is it perfectly clean? Is every inch piled high with dust? Or is it partially clean? Absolutes do not exist in this universe. By trying to force your experiences into absolute categories, you will be constantly anxious and/or depressed because your perceptions will not conform to reality.

You set yourself up for constant self-discrediting regardless what you do, as you will never meet the exaggerated expectations you've set yourself.

Examples:
  • A straight A student receives a B on an exam and concludes, "Now I'm a total failure."
  • Can you be absolutely brilliant or totally stupid?
  • Can you be completely attractive or totally ugly?
Over-generalization

The most simplistic understanding to over-generalization is that you arbitrarily conclude that due to a prior occurrence, a situation will occur repeatedly, multiplying and, because what happened was unpleasant, you feel upset. The pain of rejection is generated almost entirely from over-generalization.

Examples:
  • A salesman returns to his car to find bird poo on his window and thinks, "birds are always crapping on my window," even though he couldn't remember finding bird crap on his window in the last 20 years.
  • A young man asks a girl out on a date, but when she politely declines due to having another prior engagement, the man concludes, "I'm never going to get a date. No girl would ever want to date me. I'll be lonely my entire life."
Mental Filter (Selective Abstraction)

A mental filter is when you isolate a negative detail within a situation and then dwell upon it exclusively, thus perceiving the entire situation as negative. Thinking with a mental filter is like wearing glasses that filter out anything positive, thus only negativity is allowed to pass through the lenses to your conscious mind.

Examples:
  • A depressed student heard others make fun of her best friend, which made her furious as she thought, "that's what the human race is basically like, cruel and insensitive." She overlooked the past months where few people, if any, had been cruel to her, or her friend.
  • A student didn't answer 17 questions out of a 100 question exam. She based her entire thinking upon failing due to not answering those 17 questions. When she got her exam back, she got 83 out of 100, which was among the highest grades of all students for that exam.
Disqualifying the Positive

Disqualifying the positive is one of the most destructive cognitive distortions. This is when a person takes a positive or neutral experience, and transforms it into a negative. You actually don't just ignore positive experiences, you cleverly and swiftly turn them into their nightmarish opposite. You could think of this as reverse alchemy. Chances are you don't even know you're doing it, well, not intentionally anyway. Think of it like this: if you constantly throw cold water on the good things in life, then the only outcome is that your life will become damp and cold, as that is what water does.

This specific cognitive distortion typically has an underlying fundamental belief that "I'm second rate." This leads to an intensely miserable life where you fail to appreciate the good things that happen.

Examples:
  • When someone praises your looks or work effort, you automatically tell yourself, "they're just being nice." With one swift blow you mentally disqualified their compliment into a negative. You then do the same thing to them by responding, "Oh, it was nothing, really."
  • You have a negative experience, dwell upon it, then conclude "that proves what I've known all along."
  • You have a positive experience and tell yourself, "that was a fluke."
  • A young woman hospitalized during a time of severe depression stated, "No one could possibly care about me because I'm such an awful person. I'm a complete loner. No one person on Earth gives a damn about me." Upon leaving hospital the staff concluded she was a lovely, genuine person. The young lady negated this conclusion with "they don't count because they don't see me in the real world. A real person outside a hospital could never care about me." Even after being faced with the facts of family and friends outside of the hospital, she still continued, "they don't count because they don't know the real me. It would be impossible for anyone to really like me for a moment."
Jumping to Conclusions

You jump to a negative conclusion before having all the facts. The two simplest explanations for this are mind-reading and the fortune-teller complex.

In mind-reading, you make an assumption that others are looking down on you, and you're so convinced about this that you don't bother checking further facts. This presumption places you in a position to possibly withdraw or even counterattack negatively, all because you assumed what another did, thought, or otherwise.

Fortune-telling is similar in concept, though it's as though you have a crystal ball and foretell things negatively about your life, regardless of reality. Fortune-telling often leads you to believe something bad is going to happen, such as pass out from an anxietyattack, even though you've never passed out from an anxiety attack in your life.

Examples:
  • Whilst giving a lecture an audience member nods off to sleep. Your thoughts are along the lines of, "this audience thinks I'm boring." The reality, though, is that this person was up all night with their sick child, but you do not know this information.
  • A friend passes you on the street and fails to say hello. You may automatically conclude, "he is ignoring me so he must not like me anymore." If you asked him, you would find he was simply distracted in deep thought about a matter and didn't even see you.
  • Your spouse is unresponsive one evening after being criticized at work, and is too upset to talk about it. You interpret their silence as, "they must be mad at me, what did I do wrong?"
  • "This treatment won't work for me, I'm doomed to be like this forever." Before giving treatment a shot, the person has already foretold that it won't work for them, thus they entered with a negative attitude of hopelessness, yet without any reality to substantiate their outcome.
  • You called someone and left a message, they haven't called you back yet. You concluded that the person wasn't interested in you, or returning your call. Worse, you then find reasons to not call them back, perceiving they think negatively or such of you.
Magnification and Minimization

An easy way to remember this negative thinking style is by thinking of the binocular trick, in that depending on which way you look through binoculars you're blowing things up out of proportion (catastrophizing) or shrinking them down. The most common area of magnification is when you look inwards at your own errors, fears and imperfections, exaggerating their significance.

When you think about your strengths, you may do the opposite, making things look unimportant. If you magnify your imperfections and minimize your good points, then you're guaranteed an outcome of feeling inferior.

Examples:
  • My God -- I made a mistake. How terrible! How awful! My reputation is ruined!
  • As an exemplary seamstress, you think of your abilities as poor, lacking, or inexperienced.
Emotional Reasoning

This is when you take your emotions as evidence for truth or fact. "I feel like a fraud, therefore I am a fraud." This kind of reasoning is misleading because your feelings reflect your thoughts and beliefs. If they're distorted, as is quite often the case, your emotions will have no validity.

Emotional reasoning is strongest in depression and anxiety, as things feel negative or fearful to you, so you assume they truly are. It doesn't occur to you to challenge the validity of your perceptions that create your feelings.

Procrastination is a side effect of emotional reasoning. You avoid cleaning up your home because you tell yourself, "I feel so lousy when I think about the mess, cleaning it will be impossible." At a later date you push yourself to clean your home, and as it turns out you were wrong and it was actually quite gratifying to you afterwards and not so tough at all. It's easy to allow your negative feelings guide your actions.

Examples:
  • I feel worthless; therefore I am worthless.
  • I feel guilty; therefore I must have done something bad.
  • I feel overwhelmed and hopeless; therefore my problems must be impossible to solve.
  • I feel inadequate; therefore I must be a worthless person.
  • I'm not in the mood to do anything; therefore I might as well lay in bed.
  • I'm mad at you; this proves that you've been acting rotten and trying to take advantage of me.
Should Statements

Have you ever tried to motivate yourself by saying, "I should do this" or "I must do that?" These are pressure statements, often leading to resentment. What eventuates is you feel apathetic and unmotivated-- the contrary to what you were trying to achieve.

When you direct "should" statements towards others, you normally come out feeling frustrated. Using the first example below, you come away feeling frustrated, not the therapist.

"Should" statements generate unnecessary emotional turmoil. The reality of your own behavior falls short of your standards, your "should" and "should not" statements create self-loathing, shame and guilt. When another's performance falls short of your expectations, you feel bitter and self-righteous. Your choice is to either change your expectations of others, or go through life constantly feeling let down.

Examples:
  • Your therapist is 5 minutes late to your appointment, and you think, "she shouldn't be so self-centered and thoughtless. She ought to be prompt and on-time, just as I am."
Labeling and Mislabeling

This is an extreme form of over-generalization. Chances are you're involved in personal labeling when you begin a sentence beginning with, "I'm a..."

Labeling is not only self-defeating, it is irrational. Your self, your being, cannot be equated with any one thing you do. Your life is a complex ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Put simply, a human being is more like a river than a statue. Negative labels are simplistic and false. Would you think of yourself as an eater, just because you eat food? Or breather, because you breathe air to live?

Labeling is nonsense, but such nonsense becomes painful when you label yourself from a sense of your own inadequacies. When you label others, you will invariably generate hostility. A boss labeling his irritable secretary as an uncooperative bitch is a common example of generating hostility in labeling another. The boss now resents her due to this label. The secretary in turn labels him an insensitive chauvinist. This negative cycle repeats itself, with a focus on each other's weaknesses and imperfections as proof of the others worthlessness.

Examples:
  • You miss a putt on the 18th hole, saying to yourself, "I'm a born loser" instead of "I goofed that putt."
  • When your invested stock goes down you think, "I'm a failure" instead of "I made a mistake."
  • A woman on a diet eats a dish of ice-cream and thinks, "how disgusting and repulsive of me. I'm a pig." These thoughts made her upset, resulting in her eating the entire bucket of ice-cream.
Personalization

This distortion is the mother of all guilt. You assume responsibility for a negative, even when there is no basis or evidence for doing so. You conclude that what happened was your fault or reflects your inadequacy, even when you were not responsible.

Personalization causes you to feel crippling guilt. You suffer from a paralyzing and burdensome sense of responsibility that forces you to carry the whole world on your shoulders. You have confused influence with control over others. In your role as a teacher, parent, counsellor, physician, salesman, executive, boss, you will certainly influence the people you interact with, but no one could reasonably expect you to control them. What the other person does is ultimately his or her responsibility, not yours.

Examples:
  • A client doesn't do a self-help assignment between sessions, thus the therapist thinks, "I must be a lousy therapist. It's my fault that she isn't working harder to help herself. It's my responsibility to make sure she gets well."
  • When a mother sees her child's report card with a note attached referencing the child not doing well, the mother thinks, "I must be a bad mother. This shows how I've failed."
Conclusion

At this stage you may be asking yourself, "I understand that my mood results from my negative thoughts as my mood goes up and down. But if my negative thoughts are so distorted, how do I continually get fooled? I can think as clearly as the next person, so if what I am telling myself is irrational, why does it seem so right?"

Even though your negative thoughts may be distorted, they nevertheless create a powerful illusion of truth. The deception, in blunt terms, is that your feelings are not facts! In fact, your feelings don't even count, except as a mirror of the way you are thinking.

If your perceptions make no sense, the feelings they create are also as absurd. The abnormal emotions feel valid and real though, so you automatically attribute truth to them. This is why depression, low mood, and other problems associated to negative thinking are such a powerful form of mental black magic.

Once you invite negativity through an automatic series of cognitive distortions, your feelings and behaviors will reinforce each other in a perpetual vicious cycle. Your thoughts create your emotions; therefore your emotions cannot prove that your thoughts are accurate. Unpleasant feelings only indicate that you're thinking something negative and believing it.

Think about cognitive distortions as a baby duck following its mother. Whilst the baby duck follows blindly and faithfully along behind, it does not prove the mother duck knows where she is going.

None of this means you discard all emotions, as that is not what I'm saying. But you need to isolate painful emotions based on mental distortions because they're neither valid nor desirable.
 

Spacefish

Learning
It is a really good an informative article, but with all due respect @anthony I do think there is more to this than cognitive distortion. I recently had the absolute pleasure of seeing a brilliant Neuropsychiatrist who explained a few things to me and from following up and reflecting on my own experience I do KNOW there is the cognitive aspect, however for me (at least) there is an incredibly strong sub-conscious response to stimuli eg a startle reflex like action from an unexpected noise, or someone coming up behind me. There is no chance for a thought process, it is act first and think later.
 

anthony

Founder
Cognitive distortions only scratch the surface of dealing with PTSD. But they are the first thing you should be looking at AND a constant you have to work upon for the rest of your life. PTSD or not. If you can't change how you look at things, how you react and behave, you won't come close to dealing with the deeper issues that stem from trauma therapy and such treatments.
 

siniang

MyPTSD Pro
Cognitive distortion is ONE symptom of PTSD, not the only one. For some it's the major one, for others (see Spacefish) it isn't. This was clear to me while reading the article, as it gives really good examples to understand how cognitive distortion manifests and to reflect upon own actions and thought patterns, but it might not be as obvious to others?

I'm also not sure I agree that this should be the first thing to look at as I agree with Spacefish that it really depends on the specific person's symptoms (but then, I'm no therapist, so what do I know :) ).

If you can't change how you look at things, how you react and behave

I'm pretty sure you don't mean it like this, but this could come across wrong. It almost reads as "You just have to try a little harder". I can see how this part can come across as insulting because I'm pretty sure everyone who's a sufferer in this forum has been trying. It just fortifies their feeling of being a failure. It touches on the common stigma that people "just have to snap out of it". Again, I know that's not what you're implying, but it could be read like this by someone in a bad place.
 

anthony

Founder
Cognitive distortion is ONE symptom of PTSD
Cognitive distortions are NOT a symptom, they are a facet of every single persons irrational thinking in day to day life. The very definition of a distortion is that they thinking is flawed, skewed, not healthy.

Stop confusing PTSD and irrational thinking. If you are looking at things only one, or limited ways, and the outcome is a distorted view of the reality, then it is a distortion. Every single person has them. They simply vary depending on other factors, ie. PTSD or other mental health issue.

Correcting distortions increases your mental health to venture into more areas of healing trauma / symptoms. You can't think your way out of things. You can however correct illogical thinking due to trauma / experiences.

An example.

If you lock yourself away in your home, a fear of being robbed, beaten or killed if you go outside within the context of your normal city, a distortion is present that only you can change by changing your thinking.

99.9% of people in your city venture outside daily, without any of these issues. If your focus was on that 0.01% as reality of the world, your logic is distorted, because you are discarding that 99.9% of people are not exposed to this daily.

Now, if you lived in a high crime area where robbery, assault and such is the majority occurence (factually), then that is not a distortion, but reality.

The issue is getting unreal logic back to reality. That is the point of fixing cognitive distortions. Whether you have a lifetime of trauma or just a single event, or nothing traumatic at all, distortions can be corrected by introducing alternatives and fact, then coming to terms with them by trialling / researching and accepting was is fact vs. skewed logic.

If you are negatively affected, then it can be changed. It is not about positive thinking. If you think that, you are wrong about distortions.
 

grit

MyPTSD Pro
If there is no cognitive distortion element to trauma, we would not have CBT so popular treatment. However, my personal experience tells me that whenever I integrate or recover a portion of my past/part/acknowledge or normalize an affect or a thought - many distortions disappear. I only know sometimes after they are gone. I would be like wow! I used to think that way and all of sudden I do not.
 
Best counselor I ever had taught cbt. It was by far the most helpful, but the most difficult to practice, but it's worth it. It all goes back to irrational thoughts!
 

SeekingAfrica

MyPTSD Pro
Great article, thanks! I do not think it matters how this relates to ptsd, in that, we all have tough times when we just start thinking all negative. And for all you know, we all have a reason, and it could be the best reason, but it doesn't help. Not that we should avoid all negative feelings, that would be distortion too. But I think we can all tell when we have gone deeper and every single small thing starts to look worse than it is. Personally I'm going through such moment and maybe analysing my thoughts will help a bit. And no, of course there is no one huge solution to our suffering. Humans are complex and we have history and systems and when something big happens to you of course there is no one solution fits all, or even one solution that solves anything. In my experience of the times I've gotten better, it's usually been after sustained months of combined affort of many self are things, and therapy and a loooot of factors. Not just one. But this is a great article on one of those factors.
 

anthony

Founder
But I think we can all tell when we have gone deeper and every single small thing starts to look worse than it is
Nope. This is where your thinking is incorrect. Most people who have travelled this far down the rabbit hole do not know their logic is distorted. It becomes the new normal for them. Especially those whose logic is distorted from childhood, have zero reality to know what is societal normal.
 
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