Althought Therapy

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT): Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that has become popular for its evidenced based practices. It focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors.


The main idea is that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all connected. If we change our negative thought patterns we can make changes in how we think and feel. CBT is structured, goal-oriented, and typically short-term, making it a practical approach for various mental health issues.

CBT helps individuals understand how their thoughts influence their emotions and actions. For example, someone with anxiety might have irrational fears that amplify their anxious feelings, leading to avoidance behaviors. A cognitive behavioral therapist helps people to identify their unique irrational thoughts also called cognitive distortions.

Once the CBT therapist supports their client to identify their irrational thoughts, the client can then challenge their validity. This means that the client will work to replace irrational thoughts with more realistic and balanced thoughts.


Techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy sessions include:

  • Restructuring: examining and reframing negative thoughts
  • Exposure therapy: individuals face their fears in a controlled environment
  • Behavioral activation: engaging in activities that improve mood and reduce negative thinking

CBT therapists often give their clients homework assignments. A homework assignment may include keeping a thought diary or practicing relaxation techniques or coping skills. The homework assignments reinforce skills learned in therapy sessions.

CBT is effective for a wide range of issues, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Phobias
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Eating disorders.


Many therapists use this method because it is based on evidence and can be applied to a variety of mental health disorders. CBT empowers people to take control of their thoughts and behaviors.


What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions are inaccurate or extreme thought patterns that reinforce negative thinking and emotions. These faulty ways of thinking often occur automatically and can become ingrained habits. This leads to persistent feelings of anxiety, depression, and other emotional difficulties. Examples of cognitive distortions include all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, mental filtering, and catastrophizing.

Cognitive distortions often manifest without conscious awareness, shaping how individuals perceive themselves, others, and the world around them. For example, someone experiencing all-or-nothing thinking might view a minor mistake at work as a complete failure. They will ignore their overall competence and achievements. Similarly, someone who engages in mental filtering might focus exclusively on negative feedback, disregarding any positive comments they receive.

Recognizing and addressing these distortions is crucial in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). By identifying these patterns, individuals can begin to understand how their thoughts influence their emotions and behaviors.

CBT techniques, such as cognitive restructuring, help individuals challenge the validity of their distorted thoughts. They can replace the distorted thoughts with more balanced and realistic perspectives. For example, cognitive restructuring involves examining the evidence for and against a particular thought, considering alternative viewpoints, and developing more constructive interpretations.

Addressing cognitive distortions in CBT allows individuals to break the cycle of negative thinking that contributes to emotional distress. This process empowers individuals to develop healthier thought patterns, leading to a more positive and resilient outlook on life.


Common Cognitive Distortions

Individuals may experience several common cognitive distortions. Identifying and understanding the cognitive distortions is key to being able to challenge and reframe them. Here are some of the most prevalent cognitive distortions:

All-or-Nothing Thinking

This distortion involves seeing things in black-and-white terms, with no middle ground. For instance, harboring the belief that, “If I don’t succeed perfectly, I’m a total failure.”


Perceiving a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat is overgeneralization. For example, after a person has one bad date, they may conclude, “I’ll never find a partner.”

Mental Filter

This involves focusing exclusively on the negative aspects of a situation, filtering out any positive elements. For example, receiving praise at work but fixating on a minor criticism.

Discounting the Positive

This distortion involves rejecting positive experiences or accomplishments by insisting they don’t count. For instance, thinking, “Anyone could have done that,” when receiving a compliment.

Jumping to Conclusions

This includes two subtypes: mind-reading and fortune-telling. Mind-reading involves assuming you know what others are thinking (usually something negative). Fortune-telling involves predicting the future negatively without sufficient evidence.

Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization

Magnification involves blowing things out of proportion (catastrophizing), while minimization involves downplaying the importance of positive events. For example, thinking, “This is the worst thing that could happen,” when faced with a minor setback.

Emotional Reasoning

This distortion involves assuming that negative emotions reflect reality. For example, if someone believes, “Since I feel worthless, it must mean that I am inherently worthless.”

Should Statements

This involves having rigid rules about how you or others should behave, leading to feelings of frustration and disappointment. For example, thinking, “I should always be productive,” or “They should treat me better.”

Labeling and Mislabeling

Labeling involves assigning a negative label to oneself or others based on a single event. Mislabeling is an extreme form of overgeneralization. For instance, concluding, “I am a loser,” immediately after making a mistake.


Personalization involves taking responsibility for events outside one’s control. For example, thinking, “It’s my fault the meeting didn’t go well,” even when there were multiple factors involved.


How CBT Addresses Cognitive Distortions

CBT helps individuals recognize and challenge cognitive distortions through a variety of techniques and strategies:

Cognitive Restructuring

This technique involves identifying distorted thoughts, challenging their validity, and replacing them with more balanced and realistic thoughts. Therapists often use thought records to help individuals systematically examine and reframe their thinking.

Behavioral Experiments

Behavioral experiments involve testing the accuracy of distorted thoughts through real-life experiments. For instance, a person thinks that they will get embarrassed at a social event so they must confront testing this out. By going to the social event they can determine if this belief is true.

Socratic Questioning

Therapists use Socratic questioning to help individuals explore their thoughts in depth and uncover underlying assumptions. Questions such as “What evidence do you have for this thought?” and “Is there another way to look at this situation?” encourage critical thinking.

Mindfulness and Acceptance

Mindfulness techniques help individuals observe their thoughts without judgment, reducing the impact of cognitive distortions. Acceptance strategies involve acknowledging and accepting thoughts and feelings rather than trying to eliminate them.


Educating individuals about cognitive distortions and how they impact emotions and behavior is a key component of CBT. Understanding these concepts empowers individuals to take an active role in their treatment. This is a key component in psychodynamic therapy or talk therapy.

Homework Assignments

Therapists often assign homework to help individuals practice the skills they learn in therapy. This might include keeping a thought journal, engaging in behavioral experiments, or practicing mindfulness exercises.


The Benefits of Addressing Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are inaccurate and extreme thought patterns that can negatively impact emotions and behavior. These distorted ways of thinking often reinforce negative emotions. Anxiety and depression are often a symptom of distorted thinking.

This turns into a vicious cycle of distress:

  1. Negative thinking leads to negative emotions
  2. Negative emotions such as anxiety and depression, leads to distress

However, identifying and challenging these cognitive distortions can lead to numerous benefits for mental health and overall well-being.

Reduced Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression

One of the primary benefits of addressing cognitive distortions is the reduction of symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. Negative thought patterns often exacerbate these conditions by perpetuating feelings of hopelessness and fear.

For example, someone with anxiety might catastrophize situations, believing the worst possible outcome is inevitable. By challenging irrational thoughts and replacing them with positive ones, people can reduce their anxiety and depression symptoms. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) addresses these patterns of thinking. CBT is a highly effective method in treating mental health conditions.

Improved Emotional Regulation

Understanding and reframing cognitive distortions also enhance emotional regulation. Emotional regulation refers to the ability to manage and respond to emotional experiences in a healthy way. When individuals recognize their distorted thinking patterns, they can intervene before these thoughts spiral into overwhelming emotions.

If someone often thinks in extremes, recognizing this can help them change their thinking to be more balanced. This proactive approach leads to greater emotional stability and resilience, helping individuals navigate life’s challenges more effectively.

Enhanced Problem-Solving Skills

Addressing cognitive distortions fosters better problem-solving skills. Distorted thinking often clouds judgment and hinders the ability to assess situations objectively. By adopting a more realistic perspective, individuals can approach problems and challenges with greater clarity and confidence.

For example, you can counter overgeneralization by examining the evidence and considering alternative outcomes. This rational approach enables individuals to tackle issues more effectively, leading to better decision-making and problem-solving abilities.

Better Relationships

Improving cognitive distortions can significantly enhance relationships. Negative thinking patterns often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts in interpersonal relationships.

For instance, mind-reading—assuming what others are thinking without evidence—can cause unnecessary friction. By addressing these distortions, individuals can interpret situations more accurately and communicate more effectively.

This leads to better understanding, reduced conflicts, and stronger, healthier relationships. When people have a balanced mindset, they are more likely to have positive conversations. This can lead to better connections with others.

Increased Self-Esteem

Replacing self-critical thoughts with more positive and realistic beliefs can boost self-esteem and self-confidence. Cognitive distortions like labeling—assigning negative labels to oneself based on mistakes—can severely damage self-worth. By challenging these thoughts and recognizing one’s strengths and achievements, individuals can develop a healthier self-image.

For example, instead of thinking, “I’m a failure,” individuals can learn to see mistakes as opportunities for growth. This shift in perspective fosters a sense of competence and self-worth, enhancing overall self-esteem. Addressing cognitive distortions is a crucial step in improving mental health and overall well-being.

By challenging and reframing these negative thought patterns, individuals can experience:

  • Reduction in anxiety and depression symptoms,
  • Improved emotional regulation
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills
  • Better relationships
  • Increased self-esteem

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) offers practical tools and techniques to help individuals identify and correct their cognitive distortions. This can be empower them to lead more balanced, fulfilling lives. By cultivating healthier thinking patterns, individuals can break free from the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions. This paves the way for lasting positive change.



Everyone experiences cognitive distortions in their daily lives. However, the more prevalent they are in your life the more distressing these thought patterns tend to be. A mental health professional can support you in addressing these distorted thinking patterns. Over the course of a number of sessions your therapist can help you reduce these symptoms in the long term.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a great tool to help reduce cognitive distortions. By being able to identify the distortion and then challenge or reframe it, you can experience emotional well-being. This can lead to an overall better quality of life. Understanding and working on cognitive distortions is a powerful step towards mental health and resilience.


About the Author

Dr. Awalt can support you in integrating Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques into your life to reduce problematic symptoms. This can be a great tool for anxiety and depression. Dr. Awalt is in Lakewood, CO conveniently in the Denver metro area. She works with clients in person and offer virtual therapy sessions.



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