Thinking About Your Thinking

More on Cognitive Distortions and GAD

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How we think impacts how we feel and what actions we take. And unfortunately, not every thought that we have represents the truth. Our brains are constantly working to synthesize and simplify a lot of incoming data, and sometimes we get it wrong. Or, we get it correct one time, but cannot stop ourselves from thinking the same way again and again (This is when what was at one time an adaptive belief becomes problematic and unhealthy.).

The term ‘cognitive distortions’ refers to automatic thoughts that are biased in some way. These types of beliefs are primary treatment targets in cognitive behavioral therapy for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and CBT for other conditions as well.

How to Identify a Cognitive Distortion

There are a few clues that you might be experiencing a thinking error:

  1. If you expressed this thought to someone you trust, he or she would see things differently. The same would be true if a friend voiced the thought to you; you’d immediately see things differently and would try to help shift his or her perspective.
  2. The thought makes you feel some version of lousy (anxious, sad, embarrassed).
  3. Your belief leads you to act in an unhealthy way – perhaps to avoid certain situations or to isolate.

Of course, not every thought that leads to a negative emotion or action is distorted. However, if your belief meets at least two out of the three criteria above, it’s probably worth a closer look.

Categories of Cognitive Distortions

There are several broad categories of automatic thoughts, some of which have been reviewed previously.

Additional types of cognitive distortions commonly experienced by people with GAD include:

  • Fortune telling. These are negative predictions of the future, essentially thoughts that things will get worse. “I’ll blow my class presentation,” or “I won’t ever be able to get a new job.”
  • Emotional reasoning. Your emotions inform your interpretation of reality. “I feel anxious, therefore danger lies ahead,” or “I feel exhausted, so there must be something seriously wrong with my health.”
  • Discounting the positive. You minimize the positive or maximize the negative, either for yourself or others. “I got a high mark because the teacher was an easy grader, so it doesn’t really matter,” or “My husband is being patient because he knows he’s supposed to be supportive, not because he really understands my anxiety.”
  • Shoulds. You are not focusing on what is, but rather what ought to be. “My kids should always listen to me. If they don’t, then I’m not a good parent.”
  • What if? This question is usually asked in a series, and without any satisfying answer. “What if I get anxious?” or “What if I cannot get a good night’s rest?”

Changing Your Mind

Once you’ve slowed down a bit to think about your thinking, perhaps doing some self-monitoring to learn about your particular thought trap vulnerabilities, it’s time to step back and critically evaluate these beliefs.

Rather than assuming every thought you has is true, you might ask yourself some challenging questions. You might consider what you’d tell a friend in your shoes. Or, what you would think about this particular belief a few weeks, months, or years down the line when your circumstances or mood have changed. You might try acting in a way that is the opposite of your thought to see if you can acquire some evidence to the contrary, some data to help you nudge your thinking in a healthier, more balanced direction.

To change your mind about your thinking – and therefore, your mindset – you may need some help.  Trusted friends and family may be of assistance. And of course, mental health practitioners are trained to help you better understand and rethink your thinking.

To find a qualified clinician, check out referral resources including Psychology TodayThe Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies or The Anxiety and Depression Association. Or, speak with your current physician about seeking a recommended mental health provider. 


Leahy RL, Tirch D, Napolitano L. Emotion Regulation in Psychotherapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: The Guilford Press, 2011.  

Leahy, RL. Cognitive Therapy Techniques: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: The Guilford Press, 2003.

Beck, JS. Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: The Guilford Press, 1995.

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