Cognitive distortions

Habitual, disordered thinking
Unhelpful thoughts and beliefs
Interpreting events in a negative way

Just because you think a certain thing doesn’t mean it is true. Anxiety is often caused by cognitive distortions. These are habitual, disordered thoughts that come in the form of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, and negative interpretations.

Polarized thinking

Sometimes called all-or-nothing, or black and white thinking, this distortion occurs when people habitually think in extremes. When you’re convinced that you’re either destined for success or doomed to failure, that the people in your life are either angelic or evil, you’re probably engaging in polarized thinking. 

This kind of distortion is unrealistic and often unhelpful because most of the time reality exists somewhere between the two extremes.


When people overgeneralize, they reach a conclusion about one event and then incorrectly apply that conclusion across the board.

For example, you make a low score on one math test and conclude that you’re hopeless at math in general. You have a negative experience in one relationship and develop a belief that you just aren’t good at relationships at all.

Overgeneralization has been associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.


This distorted type of thinking leads people to dread or assume the worst when faced with the unknown. When people catastrophize, ordinary worries can quickly escalate. For instance, an expected check doesn’t arrive in the mail. A person who catastrophizes may begin to fear it will never arrive, and that as a consequence it won’t be possible to pay rent and the whole family will be evicted.

It’s easy to dismiss catastrophizing as a hysterical over-reaction, but people who have developed this cognitive distortion may have experienced repeated adverse events — like chronic pain or childhood trauma — so often that they fear the worst in many situations.


One of the most common errors in thinking is taking things personally when they’re not connected to or caused by you at all. You may be engaging in personalization when you blame yourself for circumstances that aren’t your fault, or are beyond your control.

Another example is when you incorrectly assume that you’ve been intentionally excluded or targeted. Personalization has been associated with heightened anxiety and depression.

Mind reading

When people assume they know what others are thinking, they’re resorting to mind reading.

It can be hard to distinguish between mind reading and empathy — the ability to perceive and understand what others may be feeling.

To tell the difference between the two, it might be helpful to consider all the evidence, not just the evidence that confirms your suspicions or beliefs.At least one study has found that mind reading is more common among children than among adolescents or adults and is associated with anxiety.

Mental filtering

Another distorted thought pattern is the tendency to ignore positives and focus exclusively on negatives.

Interpreting circumstances using a negative mental filter is not only inaccurate, it can worsen anxiety and depression symptoms.

ResearchersTrusted Source have found that having a negative perspective of yourself and your future can cause feelings of hopelessness. These thoughts may become extreme enough to trigger suicidal thoughts.

Discounting the positive

Like mental filters, discounting the positive involves a negative bias in thinking.

People who tend to discount the positive don’t ignore or overlook something positive. Instead, they explain it away as a fluke or sheer luck.

Instead of acknowledging that a good outcome is the result of skill, smart choices, or determination, they assume that it must be an accident or some type of anomaly.

When people believe they have no control over their circumstances, it can reduce motivation and cultivate a sense of “learned helplessness.”

“Should” statements

When people find themselves thinking in terms of what “should” and “ought” to be said or done, it’s possible that a cognitive distortion is at work.

It’s rarely helpful to chastise yourself with what you “should” be able to do in a given situation. “Should” and “ought” statements are often used by the thinker to take on a negative view of their life.

These types of thoughts are often rooted in internalized family or cultural expectations which might not be appropriate for an individual.

Such thoughts can diminish your self-esteem and raise anxiety levels.

Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning is the false belief that your emotions are the truth — that the way you feel about a situation is a reliable indicator of reality.

While it’s important to listen to, validate, and express emotion, it’s equally important to judge reality based on rational evidence.

Researchers have foundTrusted Source that emotional reasoning is a common cognitive distortion. It’s a pattern of thinking that’s used by people with and without anxiety or depression.


Labelling is a cognitive distortion in which people reduce themselves or other people to a single — usually negative — characteristic or descriptor, like “drunk” or “failure.”

When people label, they define themselves and others based on a single event or behaviour.

Labelling can cause people to berate themselves. It can also cause the thinker to misunderstand or underestimate others.

This misperception can cause real problems between people. No one wants to be labelled.

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