Cognitive Distortions: Identifying and Overcoming Unhelpful Thinking Patterns

Cognitive distortions are patterns of irrational thinking that can negatively impact mental health. They are considered unhelpful thinking patterns as they distort reality and can lead to negative emotions, behaviors, and outcomes. Common cognitive distortions include all-or-nothing thinking, mental filtering, overgeneralization, and emotional reasoning.

It is essential to recognize and tame cognitive distortions as they can significantly affect mental health. When left unchecked, cognitive distortions can lead to increased anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and decreased problem-solving abilities. Identifying and addressing cognitive distortions is crucial to prevent their negative effects on mental health.

Early recognition and intervention can help alleviate the harmful effects of cognitive distortions. Cognitive restructuring and mindfulness-based techniques are proven methods to challenge and replace unhelpful thinking patterns. Seeking professional help when needed can also be beneficial in identifying and addressing cognitive distortions.

Common Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are unhelpful thinking patterns that can lead to negative emotions, behaviors, and outcomes. Here are four common cognitive distortions:

All-or-Nothing Thinking

  • Explanation: This thinking style reflects an all-or-nothing mentality where things are either black or white. There is no middle ground or gray area.
  • Example: A person might think: "If I don't get an A on this test, I'm a failure."
  • Negative effects: All-or-nothing thinking can lead to perfectionism, low self-esteem, and feeling as though one falls short of expectations.

Mental Filtering

  • Explanation: This occurs when a person only focuses on the negative aspects of a situation, filtering out all positive aspects.
  • Example: A person might think: "I did well on this project, but it's not a big deal because it was easy anyway."
  • Negative effects: Mental filtering can lead to pessimism, depression, and self-doubt.


  • Explanation: Overgeneralization occurs when a person makes predictions or draw conclusions based on limited and insufficient evidence.
  • Example: A person might think: "I got rejected by this job, so I'll never find a job I like."
  • Negative effects: Overgeneralization can lead to irrational pessimism, self-doubt, and lack of motivation.

Emotional Reasoning

  • Explanation: Emotional reasoning involves thinking that one's emotional reactions reflect/indicate objective reality.
  • Example: A person might think: "I feel nervous about speaking in public, so I must be bad at it."
  • Negative effects: Emotional reasoning can lead to anxiety, low self-esteem, and overgeneralization.

Identifying and addressing these distortions can create more accurate perceptions and ultimately lead to improved emotional health.

Recognizing Your Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions can often be difficult to recognize, as we are often unaware of our thinking patterns. However, recognizing these patterns is the first step towards overcoming them. Here are some strategies to help you identify cognitive distortions:

Understanding Automatic Thoughts

Automatic thoughts are unconscious, spontaneous, and often negative thoughts that occur in response to a trigger. They can be a helpful clue to identifying your cognitive distortions. Paying attention to automatic thoughts and the feelings and physical sensations that accompany them is an excellent step towards recognizing cognitive distortions.

Strategies for Identifying Cognitive Distortions

Keeping a Thought Log

One of the best ways to identify cognitive distortions is by keeping a thought log. This involves writing down your automatic thoughts as they arise. You can also note the emotions and physical sensations that accompany those thoughts. Over time, you may begin to notice patterns and recurring types of distortions.

Seeking feedback from others

It can be challenging to identify our cognitive distortions on our own. Consider asking trusted friends, family, or a mental health professional to help identify patterns of unhelpful thinking. They may offer a fresh perspective that could help you recognize automatic thoughts and unhelpful thinking patterns.

Paying attention to physical reactions

Physical sensations such as tightness in the chest, increased heart rate, or feelings of stress can be clues to the presence of cognitive distortions. Paying attention to your physical reactions when you experience automatic thoughts can help identify unhelpful thinking patterns.

The process of recognizing cognitive distortions can be challenging, but it is a necessary step towards improving emotional health. Practice these strategies, and with time and patience, you can begin to recognize and overcome unhelpful thinking patterns.

Taming Your Cognitive Distortions

Recognizing cognitive distortions is only the first step towards overcoming them. The next step is to learn techniques for taming these unhelpful thinking patterns. Here are two effective methods for taming cognitive distortions:

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a technique that involves identifying and replacing negative or distorted thoughts with more realistic and positive ones. This approach focuses on altering the way we think about situations rather than changing the situation itself. Here's a breakdown of the process:

Explanation of Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring involves identifying negative thoughts and then challenging them. This can be done through examining evidence that supports and contradicts the negative thought, or by looking at the situation from a different perspective.

Tools for Cognitive Restructuring

There are several strategies to use when restructuring your thoughts, including:

  • Identifying negative thoughts and challenging them
  • Reframing negative thoughts in a more positive light
  • Developing positive affirmations to replace negative self-talk

Example of Cognitive Restructuring

Let's say you feel like you're not good enough to get a promotion. Instead of thinking, "I'll never be good enough for this job," try reframing that thought to be more realistic and positive. For example, "I may not have all the skills yet, but I can learn and improve with time and experience."


Mindfulness is a technique that involves being present and aware of the current moment. It can be helpful in recognizing negative thoughts and emotions and can help improve mood and overall well-being. Here's a breakdown of the process:

Explanation of Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment or distraction. This can be done through meditation, breathing exercises, or simply taking time to notice your surroundings.

Techniques for Mindfulness

There are several strategies for practicing mindfulness, including:

  • Mindful breathing exercises
  • Meditation practices
  • Body scan exercises

Example of Mindfulness

Next time you're feeling overwhelmed with negative thoughts, take a few minutes to focus on your breathing. Notice the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body. Rather than trying to push away the negative thoughts, acknowledge them and then refocus your attention on the present moment. Over time, this practice can help reduce the impact of negative thoughts and emotions.

Seeking Professional Help

Sometimes, cognitive distortions are difficult to overcome on our own. In these cases, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. Here's what you need to know:

When to Seek Professional Help

It's important to seek professional help if you find that your cognitive distortions are significantly impacting your daily life or relationships. If you're experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, seeking professional help can also be beneficial in managing these conditions.

Types of Professionals Who Can Help

Several types of professionals are trained to help individuals overcome cognitive distortions, including:

  • Psychiatrists: Medical doctors who can diagnose and treat mental health conditions, including prescribing medication if necessary.
  • Psychologists: Professionals who can provide therapy and counseling to individuals struggling with cognitive distortions. Some psychologists may also be able to diagnose mental health conditions.
  • Counselors: Professionals who can provide therapy and support to individuals with cognitive distortions. They may also specialize in certain areas such as family therapy or addiction counseling.
  • Social Workers: Professionals who can provide therapy and support to individuals, families, and groups experiencing various life challenges, including cognitive distortions.

What to Expect From Therapy

The type of therapy used to address cognitive distortions varies depending on the individual's needs and preferences. Some commonly used therapies include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A goal-oriented therapy that focuses on changing patterns of negative thinking and behavior.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): A type of therapy that combines traditional CBT with mindfulness techniques to manage emotions and relationships.
  • Psychodynamic Therapy: A therapy that focuses on exploring past experiences and how they may be affecting current behavior and thinking patterns.

In general, therapy involves meeting with a trained professional on a regular basis to discuss thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to cognitive distortions. The therapist will work with you to identify unhelpful thinking patterns and develop strategies for challenging and overcoming them. Therapy can be a very effective way to address cognitive distortions and improve overall mental health.


Cognitive distortions are common and can have negative impacts on mental health and well-being. By recognizing and taming these unhelpful thinking patterns, individuals can significantly improve their quality of life.

In this article, we've explored several common cognitive distortions, including all-or-nothing thinking, mental filtering, overgeneralization, and emotional reasoning. These unhelpful thinking patterns can lead to negative thought spirals, increased anxiety and stress, and difficulty seeing situations clearly.

Recognizing cognitive distortions is the first step in taming them. By becoming aware of these patterns, individuals can begin to challenge and reframe their negative thoughts. Over time, this can lead to a more positive and realistic view of the world, reducing stress and improving overall mental health.

Positive Effects of Addressing Cognitive Distortions on Mental Health

By working to overcome cognitive distortions, individuals may experience several positive effects, including:

  • Increased self-esteem and confidence
  • Better relationships with others
  • Reduced anxiety and stress
  • Improved problem-solving abilities
  • Better communication skills
  • Improved overall mental health and well-being

Overall, recognizing and taming cognitive distortions is an important part of improving mental health and living a happy and fulfilling life. By seeking professional help when necessary and using self-help techniques like cognitive restructuring and mindfulness, individuals can overcome these unhelpful thinking patterns and enjoy the benefits of a more positive and realistic outlook on life.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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