People often develop cognitive distortions as a way of coping 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. In other words, stress could cause people to adapt their thinking in ways that are useful for their immediate survival. But these thoughts aren’t rational or healthy long-term. Research has identified 10 common distorted thinking patterns, which are listed below:

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 have a negative experience in one relationship and develop a belief that you just aren’t good at relationships at all.

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 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. 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.

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.

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. Having a negative perspective of yourself and your future can cause feelings of hopelessness.

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.

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.

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.

How to change these distortions

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.