How to Spot Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions, like all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing, are tricks our minds play on us. What is the definition of cognitive distortions and how can we learn to spot them?

by Emilie Glen Colsted

What is the definition of cognitive distortions?

The definition of cognitive distortions by APA is "faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief (...) that can occur in all people to a greater or lesser extent."

Most people experience them on a day-to-day basis and most of the time without even realizing it. However, these distorted ways of thinking can affect our mood and mental health negatively. They can lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression as well as difficulties managing everyday stress.

Two of the most common examples of cognitive distortions are all-or-nothing thinking and catastrophizing.

All-or-nothing

This distortion has many names: all-or-nothing thinking, polarized thinking, and black-and-white thinking.

It manifests as an unwillingness or inability to see the nuances. It makes us think of ourselves, others, or the world in terms of extremes. E.g. Something is either completely fantastic or really awful. Or any outcome less than 100 % equals 0.

This distortion can be quite discouraging. It can cause us to ignore progress and success, which can make us believe that it's pointless to do something when it's not. Like "If I'm not going to win, then I'm not even going to try". It basically convinces us that something is hopeless and encourages us to quit even trying.

This kind of thinking can also be hurtful to our self-image. We don't fall into either a "good" or "bad" category. But, thinking in extremes can make us discard the positive sides and become overly self-critical. On the other hand, it can make us ignore the negative and refuse to see our own faults.

Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is thinking in extremes and imagining the worst. It is taking a difficult situation and adding to it extreme and horrible consequences. E.g. You may face a tough test and worry that you'll fail it. And then you start to imagine what will happen if you do fail it: "I'm never going to graduate", "I'll never get the job I want", or "I'll be a failure".

Catastrophizing often starts with genuine setbacks or challenges. The thinking error then turns the situation into a belief that something terrible and unrecoverable is bound to or did happen.

This can make us feel anxious or hopeless instead of simply viewing the situation as something uncomfortable that will pass.

How to spot them

Being able to detect when distortions are at play can help us become aware of what's making us feel upset. And, noticing them is the first step in coping with them. But how do you keep an eye out for cognitive distortions?

One way to identify all-or-nothing thinking is: When you find yourself in situations where you experience feelings like hopelessness, inadequacy, or anxiety, then try to pause things for a bit and scan for any binary or extreme terms that may go through your head. E.g.

  • "never"

  • "always"

  • "everything"

  • "nothing"

  • "no one"

  • "totally"

  • "completely" or

  • "can't"

In the same way, catastrophizing can typically be spotted by recognizing if your mind is turning to worst-case scenarios.

Click here to learn more about how to cope with cognitive distortions

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