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  • Jessica Cleveland, LPC

Minding Your Thoughts: How to recognize thoughts that lead to anxiety

As a therapist that frequently helps people with anxiety and depression, one of the primary skills I teach is to learn to identify and deal with cognitive distortions. A cognitive distortion is a thought that causes individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. Although pretty common, these distorted thoughts can contribute to an overall negative outlook on the world and a depressive or anxious mental state. Let's look at some of the most common cognitive distortions:

1. Filtering.

Filtering is where we take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.

2. Polarized Thinking (or "Black and White" Thinking)

In polarized thinking, things are either "black-or-white." We have to be perfect or we're a failure--there is no middle ground. This type of thinking places people or situations in "either/or" categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people or situations. For example, if your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

3. Overgeneralization

In this cognitive distortion, we come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat. For example, "I failed the last biology test, I will probably fail the next one."

4. Jumping to Conclusions

Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we think we are able to determine how people are feeling towards us. For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively towards them but doesn'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.

5. Catastrophizing

In catastrophizing, a person expects disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as "magnifying or minimizing." We hear about a problem and use what if questions. For example, "what if tragedy strikes?" or "what if it happens to me?"

A person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else's achievements). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person's own desirable qualities or someone else's imperfections).

Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and David Burns was responsible for popularizing it with common names and examples for the distortions. With practice, anyone can learn to deal with each of these cognitive distortions.

One simple technique I ask my clients to use is what I like to call the "3 R's". They are:

1. Relabel

2. Reframe

3. Redirect

It helps to become familiar with the distortions you tend to do more of the time. As you begin to label them, you notice the negative spiral this type of thinking can cause and you can begin to challenge it by re-framing or attempting to change your perspective from a negative extreme to a more realistic one. This will allow for a change in behavior which will produce a positive outcome.

Give it a try and if you would like to learn more about this technique, call Refuge Counseling Center, LLC at 601-531-3979 to set up an appointment.


Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.

Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.

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