Cognitive distortions are automatic thought patterns that are inaccurate and reinforce negative thinking or emotions. These automatic thoughts “distort” our thinking by leading us to believe something that is both unhelpful and untrue (Bollen et al., 2021). Psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Aaron Beck is known for first proposing the theory behind cognitive distortions in the 1960s. He would then form the central part of his cognitive theory and, later, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
In his book (1963), he lists five types of cognitive distortions.
Dr. David Burns was an early student of Dr. Beck and helped popularize CBT. In his book (1980), he included more unhealthy thinking styles while also re-wording some of Beck’s distortions:
The theory underlying CBT states that cognitive distortions are associated with certain mental health disorders. These conditions include anxiety and depression. One anxiety disorder that’s largely affected by cognitive distortions is social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder (SAD) occurs when individuals fear and endure discomfort or avoid social situations, such as social interaction or performances that may involve social scrutiny (Cook et al., 2019). These individuals are more likely to have negative thinking patterns that overestimate the probability and severity of negative social events and interactions. With depression, cognitive distortions were found to have a positive relationship, meaning as depression increased, cognitive distortions increased with helplessness and self-blame being the top two predictors of mental well-being (Yüksel & Bahadir-Yilmaz, 2019). Cognitive distortions were also found to mediate the relationship between trauma and suicide ideation (Whiteman et al., 2019). Researchers (2019) revealed that negative cognitions about the world and about the self were strong predictors of suicide ideation. These findings support the routine assessment of cognitive distortions and suicide ideation in survivors of trauma and of those who are experiencing anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Cognitive distortions can be combatted with CBT, which has been known to help redirect negative thought patterns into more positive ones (Beck, 1963). It can also help you challenge your negative thoughts and emotions, and encourage you to find the source of those thoughts. Fortunately, there are many resources to help you challenge your cognitive distortions and identify their root cause.