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10 Stressful Thinking Patterns, and How to Reverse Them

Ovrgeneralizing, catastrophizing, and more.

Key points

  • Cognitive distortions are patterns of thought that we believe to be true despite having no basis in fact.
  • There are 10 common distortions, including all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, and using "should" statements.
  • Becoming aware of cognitive distortions is the first step of overcoming them.
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"Evening" by Paul Hoeker
Source: Public Domain

Stressful thinking patterns are an example of cognitive distortions—the belief that something is true despite it having no basis in fact. Not surprisingly, this leads to mental suffering.

I’m using cognitive distortions that the chronically ill tend to engage in. If you’re in good health, substitute a few words and you’ll recognize your own tendencies.

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking

When you fall short of perfect, you think you’re a failure. Example: “Because I was in too much pain to housekeep today, I’m a failure at keeping my place looking nice.” (If your health is fine, maybe substitute “too busy” for “in too much pain.”)

To counter this cognitive distortion, focus on what you did get done: “Given my pain level, it’s amazing that I managed to make my bed!” (For more on this, see "How to Break the Painful Habit of All-or-Nothing Thinking.")

2. Overgeneralizing

If one thing goes wrong, you conclude that everything will go wrong. If something unpleasant happens, you conclude it will always happen.

Example: You decide to take a walk but, due to pain, can only go one block. Instead of generating self-compassion, you overgeneralize: “I’ll never be able to get around the block.”

To counter this, remember that just because an experience doesn’t live up to your expectations one time doesn’t mean it will always be that way.

3. Mental Filtering

You filter out the positives in your experience and dwell on the negatives. This can lead to a bleak vision of reality. The truth is, life is a mix of successes and disappointments, joys and sorrows.

Example: Due to chronic illness, you have to leave a gathering early. Instead of recalling the pleasant aspects of your experience (“I had a great chat with Diane”), you focus on the negatives (“Because I had to leave early, I never should have gone”).

To counter this distortion, focus on the positives in your experience. If you still feel sad, that’s okay; be as kind to yourself as you can.

4. Disqualifying the Positive

Although some cognitive distortions sound similar, there are subtle differences. When you disqualify the positive, you go beyond Mental Filtering. You don’t just dwell on the negatives of an experience. You actively transform neutral or positive experiences into negative ones. This is unfair to yourself!

Example: You get an email from an acquaintance. Instead of feeling good about it, you turn it into a negative: “She only emailed me out of obligation, not because she wants to be friends.” Disqualifying the positive can have sad consequences—like not writing back to someone who truly wants to be friends.

To counter this distortion, notice when you’re thinking negatively about an experience or a person. Then actively look for the positives. Also try asking: “Am I sure?” (A teaching from Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh.) “Am I sure she only emailed me out of obligation?” No!

5. Jumping to Conclusions

You jump to a negative conclusion, even though it’s not supported by the facts. Example: You decide someone is thinking badly of you and then treat it as an established fact, even though that person has never given you cause to believe this.

When I became chronically ill, I jumped to the conclusion that people thought I was a malingerer who was trying to get out of work, even though I loved my job. I had no evidence then or now that anyone was thinking this, yet I jumped to this painful conclusion.

The best way to counter this is with the question “Am I sure?” In my case, “absolutely not!”

6. Catastrophizing

You magnify the impact of an experience. Example: Your symptoms flare one evening. Instead of waiting to see if they subside by morning, you magnify the experience until you’re convinced it’s your “new normal.” We can make ourselves miserable by magnifying life’s inevitable disappointments.

To counter catastrophizing, put your experience into perspective: “There’s no reason to assume this flare is permanent.” (For more on this, see “How to Put a Stop to Catastrophic Thinking.”)

7. Identifying with Emotions

You believe the way you feel is the way you are. “I feel dumb because I didn’t understand his question; I am dumb.“ “I feel as if I was boring at lunch; I am boring.”

To counter this distortion, remember that emotions arise in response to conditions of the moment and are temporary. Refuse to treat them as proof of who you are.

8. Using “Should” Statements

You try to motivate yourself with “shoulds,” “shouldn’ts,” “oughts,” and “musts.” These words are a set-up for painful self-blame.

“I should exercise.” But maybe you shouldn’t! There are few set “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” in life. It depends on your circumstances. Refuse to set impossible standards for yourself.

9. Labeling Yourself and Others

When you label yourself and others (“I’m incompetent,” “He’s dull”), you’re engaging in distorted thinking because no one is just one thing.

Counter this distortion by noticing that labels only make you and others feel bad. Replace them with thoughtful reflections: “I’m not incompetent. This is simply hard to learn.”

10. Personalizing

You erroneously see yourself as the cause of some external event. Example: You feel responsible for whether people have a good time when you’re with them.

Counter this distortion by reflecting on what you actually control in life. You don’t control what other people think or feel or whether they’re enjoying themselves. All you control is your own behavior; be kind. (For more on this, see “It’s Time to Stop Taking Things Personally.”)

In sum, I often shake my head in amazement at the crazy stuff that goes on in my mind. I’ll say to myself: “This mind can be so unreasonable! So outrageous!” This allows me to hold these cognitive distortions lightly, which keeps me from blaming myself when they show up. Then I can tackle the job of countering them.

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