Why Cognitive Distortions Worsen Anxiety and Depression

Over time, you can form habits that help promote more rational and balanced thinking.

Approximately 43.8 million adults will experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Of those, approximately 16 million live with major depression. Plus, an astounding 40 million adults are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Multiple factors you can’t control—including genetics, hormones and environmental factors—contribute to their manifestation. But one factor that we do have control over is our thoughts or cognitions.

How we perceive and feel about our experiences—whether they’re stressful, traumatic, sad, exciting or joyful—comes from our inner thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs. Before we’re able to attach feelings like joy, excitement, frustration and anger to any given experience, we must first understand it by giving the experience context. When our brain is in sync with reality, we correctly interpret our experiences, events and social interactions. But for many who regularly misinterpret reality, their inaccurate thoughts or cognitive distortions causes unnecessary inner turmoil.

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What is cognitive distortion?

Cognitive distortions are the ways in which our mind convinces us of the truth of something that isn’t true. Cognitive distortions cause mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. By learning how to identify and refute inaccurate thinking, we can find more rational and balanced thinking. There are five common cognitive distortions. Here’s a look.

  1. Filtering. This happens when one exclusively focuses on the negative details of an experience to such a degree that any positive aspects are filtered out.
  2. Polarized Thinking. Also known as black and white thinking, this occurs when a person places people and or situations in “either/or,” “all/none” and “good/ bad” categories. The result is emotional issues because it ignores the true complexity of most people and situations.
  3. Overgeneralization. This happens when an individual applies a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence to future events.
  4. Jumping to Conclusions. The hallmark of this cognitive distortion is the belief that one knows exactly what another person is feeling and thinking and why they act the way they do.
  5. Should Statements. Many people use should statements as a means for motivating themselves by thinking, “I should do this.” This type of thinking often leaves one feeling angry, pressured, resentful and depressed, robbing you of freedom.

Cognitive distortions often create unnecessary anxiety and depression. Over time and with practice, patience and commitment you can develop new habits and ways of thinking to combat these issues. Below are four techniques to employ.

  1. Keep a daily thought journal. Identify what needs changing. Get in the habit of jotting down negative and troublesome thoughts you have throughout the day.  
  2. Regularly examine your thoughts. Set a time each day to read over negative thoughts from your journal. Be as objective as possible. This should help with learning to identify the most common cognitive distortions and their context.
  3. Reflect. Consider things like: “Do I find that I often make negative generalizations?” or “Am I always jumping to conclusions?” Ask yourself, “Are my negative thoughts simply my personal opinions or facts?”  Putting emotional distance between your thoughts and emotions is key for cultivating self-reflection.
  4. Get out of your head. Ask yourself, “Would I think and feel the same way about a friend in the same situation?” Often, we are harder on ourselves than family and friends. Be loving and compassionate with yourself.

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