Cognitive distortions involve negative thinking patterns that aren’t based on fact or reality. Research suggests that people may develop cognitive distortions to cope with adverse life events. The more prolonged and severe those adverse events are, the more likely it is that one or more cognitive distortions will form. Human beings might even have developed cognitive distortions as an evolutionary survival method. In other words, experiencing stress could cause you to adapt your thinking in useful ways for immediate survival, but these thoughts often aren’t rational or healthy long-term. The different types of cognitive distortions are:

Polarized thinking
Sometimes called “all-or-nothing” this distortion occurs when people habitually think in extremes without considering all the possible facts in a given situation. 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 reality often exists between the two extremes.

When people overgeneralise they reach a conclusion about one event and then incorrectly apply that conclusion across the board. In other words, you might assume that one negative event means every subsequent event thereafter will be negative too. For example, you perform poorly on one work task and conclude that you’re hopeless in general. You may have a negative experience in one relationship and then believe that you just aren’t good at relationships.

This distorted thinking leads people to dread or assume the worst when faced with the unknown. For instance, an expected payment doesn’t arrive. 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.

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 are beyond your control. Another example is when you incorrectly assume that you’ve been intentionally excluded or targeted.

Mind reading
When people assume they know what others are thinking, they’re resorting to mind reading. With this cognitive delusion, you may also assume that others are thinking negative thoughts about you.

Mental filtering
This distorted thought pattern involves the tendency to ignore positives and focus on negatives. This is known as mental filtering. 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. As the name suggests, discounting the positive essentially means that you either dismiss or ignore positive events. 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.

‘Should’ statements
When people find themselves thinking in terms of what should or 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 that might not be appropriate for an individual.

Emotional reasoning
Emotional reasoning refers to the false belief that your emotions are the truth — and 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.

Labelling is a cognitive distortion in which people classify themselves in a negative way following an undesirable event. For example, they might reduce themselves or other people to a single — usually negative — characteristic or descriptor, such as a “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 problems between people.

How to change this way of thinking
The good news is that cognitive distortions can be corrected over time. Here are some steps you can take if you want to change thought patterns that may not be helpful:

Identify the troublesome thought
When you realize a thought is causing anxiety or dampening your mood, a good first step is to figure out what kind of distorted thinking is taking place.

Try reframing the situation
Look for shades of grey, alternative explanations, objective evidence, and positive interpretations to expand your thinking. You might find it helpful to write down your original thought, followed by three or four alternative interpretations.

Perform a cost-benefit analysis
People usually repeat behaviours that deliver some benefit. You might find it helpful to analyse how your thought patterns have helped you cope in the past. Do they give you a sense of control in situations where you feel powerless? Do they allow you to avoid taking responsibility or taking necessary risks? You can also ask yourself what engaging in cognitive distortion costs you. Weighing the pros and cons of your thought patterns could motivate you to change them.