Most people with anxiety have a tendency toward negative thinking. In a situation where someone else might think “Oh, this could be a minor inconvenience,” you may think it would be awful or it could wreck your mood or even wreck your day.
Such negative thoughts come automatically, and seem real or plausible in that moment – even though they are not necessarily logical or accurate. I call these “thinking errors” or “mistaken thinking.”
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), many of the negative thought patterns associated with anxiety are called Cognitive Distortions. As the name implies, they are thoughts that have become inaccurate, irrational or illogical (i.e. distorted) …usually without you realizing it.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts biased toward the negative, even when there is little or no evidence to support the negative.
That’s “stinking thinking” because it makes you feel worse (or more anxious) rather than better. Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind “tricks” us into believing that something is true when it really isn’t.
That kind of negative thinking has a snowball effect –one negative thought leads to another, then another, then another. Cognitive distortions create a downward spiral of more and more negative thinking, worry and “what ifs.”
Common Cognitive Distortions that Cause Anxiety
See if you are using any of these distorted ways of thinking…
- Catastrophizing: Seeing only the worst possible outcomes of a situation.
- Overgeneralization: Making broad interpretations from a single or few events. “I felt awkward during my first job interview. I am always so awkward.”
- Mind reading: Interpreting the thoughts and beliefs of others without adequate evidence. “He would not go on a date with me. He must think I am ugly.”
- Magnification and Minimization: Exaggerating or minimizing the importance of events. One might believe their own achievements aren’t that important, or that their mistakes are excessively important.
- Fortune telling: The expectation that a situation will turn out badly without adequate evidence.
- What If: You keep asking a series of questions about “what if something happens” and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers.
- Should statements: Interpreting events in terms of what you think they should be instead of simple as they are. “I should always be calm.”
- All-or-nothing thinking: Thinking in absolutes such as “always”, “never”, or “every”. “Things never work out for me.” Black or white thinking.
- Personalization: The belief that one is responsible for events outside of their own control. “My mother is always upset. It must be because I have not done enough to help her.”
- Jumping to conclusions: Interpreting the meaning of a situation with little or no evidence.
- Disqualifying the positive: Recognizing only negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. One might receive many compliments on an evaluation but focus on the single piece of negative feedback.
CBT is a practical, highly effective treatment designed to help you reduce anxiety by teaching more effective ways of thinking. To do this, it is first necessary to examine your thoughts and identify the ones that are actually cognitive distortions, or “stinking thinking.”
With a CBT therapist, you learn to: 1) correctly identify cognitive distortions and “stinking thinking;” and 2) respond to the negative thinking by refuting it with more accurate and logical thoughts.
By refuting negative thinking over and over again, the neural pathways in your brain literally change and the negative pattern diminishes over time.