6 Cognitive Distortions That Could Be Fueling Your Anxious Thoughts

These common anxiety "mind traps" might sound familiar.

It's very helpful to be mindful of the various ways of thinking. You might even recognize these patterns in yourself or those around you. If so, remember that you can step back and realize when you've fallen into a "mind trap," often referred to as "cognitive distortions." The one I'm most guilty of? Catastrophizing, which we'll start with.


Catastrophizing is a type of distorted thinking that really amplifies anxiety. It's when we jump to the worst possible conclusion, expecting disaster, or we see something as being far worse than it actually is. Sound familiar? Jumping to the worst-case scenario is my superpower.

We look at situations or challenges that face us, automatically imagining the worst possible thing that could happen.

Our minds continue this with the what-ifs game. This is when our minds go on and on: What if this worst-case scenario happens?

Catastrophizing can generally take two forms. First, it takes a current situation and gives it a truly negative "spin." The second occurs when we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong. Breaking the cycle can be hard, but in this case, with anxiety overall, there are some simple steps to acknowledge what's happening and stop it before it gets out of control:

  • Recognize when you're doing it!
  • Start recording your negative thoughts to yourself. Write down what happened and what you thought about the situation as objectively as you can, and then write down what your reaction or behaviors were.
  • Change your self-talk to be more forgiving and "hopeful."
  • Instead of trying to stop yourself from catastrophizing from here on out (it's a hard one to avoid), realize that the worst thing that "could" happen isn't always that terrible.

Polarized Thinking

Polarized thinking happens when you believe that there are only right or wrong outcomes or views. When you view things in terms of pure good or pure bad, it leads to unachievable standards and high-stress levels.

Polarized thinking crops up when you find yourself basing your hopes and expectations on a single event or outcome, such as getting into the college course you've dreamed about, wanting everyone to be impressed by you, a specific level of income, or even a certain level of satisfaction.

  • Realize that there are a lot of levels between triumph and tragedy; and that most things fall somewhere in between.
  • Understand that no single accomplishment or failure is going to determine your future happiness.
  • Don't expect that your values will never change or that other people will value the same things as you.
  • Try to figure out what the actual consequences of failure are, and have a plan for dealing with those consequences.


Filtering is taking the negative details and magnifying them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation.

For example, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.

  • Learn to evaluate things clearly and objectively, even if you still feel more aware of the sh*t stuff.
  • Look for positives.
  • Resist "minimalizing" your efforts or achievements.
  • Acknowledge your own growth by comparing how you have improved or done things better than a month/year/five years ago.


This is thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you specifically. For example—and I've done this so many times—thinking that a friend's bad mood is because I've done something to irritate them, and so I search my mind for reasons to blame myself. You also compare yourself to others, trying to determine who's smarter, better-looking, and so forth.

The underlying assumption is that your worth is in question.

You are, therefore, continually forced to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others. If you come out better, you get a moment's relief. If you come up short, you feel diminished. The basic thinking error is that you interpret each experience, each conversation, and each look as a clue to your own worth and value.

  • Understand that other people may not be aware that their bad moods are on display.
  • Realize that others can have an awful lot going on in their heads.
  • If you really think you've done something wrong—ask them.
  • If nothing springs to mind, realize that you are most likely guilty of personalization, but don't berate yourself for it. Observe it.
  • Try to avoid jumping to the conclusion that you are at fault next time around.
  • Try not to change your behavior around the person; their mood is their issue.


Overgeneralization is coming to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, we expect it to happen over and over again.

A person may see a single, unpleasant event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. Using "always" and "never" are clues that this style of thinking is at work.

This distorted thinking can lead to a restricted life, as you avoid future failures based on a single incident or event. You jump to conclusions without individuals saying anything, as though you know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us. For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them and don't actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.

  • Observe your tendency to overgeneralize in your day-to-day life.
  • Next time, try to look at the facts; is it really "always" or "never" or are you dramatizing reality? Take your emotions out of it.
  • Try to treat events in isolation, instead of taking things in the past as a predictor of what will happen in the future.

Attribution Errors

Similar in ways to overgeneralizations, it's just crazy to believe you can correctly know a person's reasons for the way they behave. Their actions may or may not be deliberate.

The person may not even be aware of what they are doing (this is, in my experience, so often the case). Their actions may or may not be directed at you. Their actions may have unintended consequences or may result from an accident or chance.

We judge others based on behavior, and we judge ourselves based on intent. It is difficult to determine the cause when only the effect of something can be observed.

  • Take heed of "consensus" information. If most people behave the same way when put in the same situation, then the situation is more likely to be the cause of the behavior.
  • Ask yourself how you would behave in the same situation.
  • Look for unseen causes, specifically looking for less-salient factors.

Simple Steps To Challenge Cognitive Distortions

Be aware of what you are saying to yourself. Ask yourself: "What is going through my mind?" or "What is it about this situation that is upsetting me?"

Challenge your thoughts. Remember, just because you think something doesn't mean it's true. Ask yourself: "Is this thought helpful?"; "Am I being realistic?"; "Would other people in this situation think these thoughts?"; "Is this an example of one of the common mind traps?"

Consider the following strategies and ask yourself some of these questions:

  • Look for evidence: What's the evidence for and against my thought? Am I focusing on the negatives and ignoring other information? Am I jumping to conclusions without looking at all the facts?
  • Search for alternative explanations: Are there any other possible explanations? Is there another way of looking at this? Am I being too inflexible in my thinking?
  • Put thoughts into perspective: Is it as bad as I am making out? What is the worst that could happen? How likely is it that the worst will happen? Even if it did happen, would it really be that bad? What could I do to get through it?
  • What is a more helpful thought? What can I say to myself that will help me remain calmer and help me achieve what I want to achieve in this situation?

Excerpted from Own It.: Make Your Anxiety Work for You by Caroline Foran. Copyright © 2017, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the publisher,

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