What Is the Definition of Cognitive Distortion?

How negative thoughts affect people with PTSD

depressed young woman on bed
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You can better understand the definition of cognitive distortion by first acknowledging that we all have negative thoughts from time to time. This is especially the case for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, negative thoughts are so common in certain mental health disorders that mental health professionals use the term cognitive distortions to describe them.

Also known as maladaptive thoughts, errors in thinking or irrational thoughts, cognitive distortions refer to unpleasant thoughts that are extreme, exaggerated or not consistent with what is actually going on in the real world.

As a result, cognitive distortions can have a negative influence on our mood and eventually lead to unhealthy behaviors. The connection between thoughts and actions is part of the reason cognitive distortions are considered a central part of cognitive behavioral therapy.

For example, let's say you commonly have the thought, "I will always be depressed." Whenever this thought pops into your head, you will likely start feeling sad, down, hopeless and helpless. Because of this, you may start to isolate yourself or avoid activities that you used to enjoy.

This is then only going to increase the chance that your depression worsens and sticks around. This thought is a cognitive distortion. It is highly unlikely that you will always feel depressed. There may still be times when you feel a little better.

In addition, looking at your past, chances are you haven't always been depressed. So, while it may feel like you will always be depressed, in reality your depression may come and go.

Below are some common cognitive distortions that may contribute to a negative mood.

All-or-None Thinking

This involves looking at a situation as either black or white or thinking that there are only two possible outcomes to a situation. An example of such thinking is, "If I am not a complete success at my job; then I am a total failure."

Catastrophizing

This entails expecting the worse to happen without considering alternative outcomes that are more likely to happen. An example of this form of thinking is, "I know that I will be so anxious that I will bomb this test and fail the course."

Labeling

This includes defining yourself or others in a rigid way that doesn't allow for more favorable evaluations. People who label might tell themselves, "I am a total loser."

Discounting the Positive

This involves looking past and ignoring positive experiences or viewing positive experiences or outcomes as simply being due to chance. Someone who engages in this thinking might say, "I got that job out of luck, not because I was qualified."

Mind Reading

People who mind read think they know what others are thinking. For example, they might say, "I just know that my therapist thinks I am a waste of his time."

Personalization

This entails evaluating other people's behavior as being the result of something you did. Someone who personalizes may think, "She wasn't very polite toward me because I must have done something to upset her."

Emotional Reasoning

People who use emotional reasoning believe something is true because it feels that way. They may say, "I must have failed that test because I feel so bad about my performance."

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