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Stress Management for Health Course

New Cognitive Distortions

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Stress-Inducing Thinking Styles


We dont see the world as it is, we see it as we are. (Ref unknown)


As we have discussed our thoughts play an influential role in our perception of the stress we are under.  Some of these stress-inducing thoughts are called Cognitive Distortions and it used to be believed that there were only a few of them but we now know that there are far more than this.  You will find below some of the most common of these thinking errors. 


        There is also an evolutionary aspect that under stress it is common for us to start imagining the worse, become highly attentive to threats, and distorted in our thinking (Gilbert 1998B) such styles of thinking actually may have had adaptive functions.  However it can also become highly maladaptive. (Gilbert P. (2000) Counselling for Depression 2nd Ed. Sage Books)

        Each of us views the world through our own unique lens, the characteristics and scope of that lens governs what we are able to see and know about the world.  Paradigms are not born; they are made.  They are handed down first and foremost by the culture in which we live, globally and locally.  They represent the collective attitudes and beliefs of what Carolyn Myss PhD calls our tribe.  What we believe about how the world works is very different from what our great grandfathers believed.  And it is different from what someone living in the rain forests of Borneo believes.  We, our great-grandfather, and the Borneo tribesman have very different explanations for, say, an airplane, or a computer, or a fertility fetish.  A kid who grows up in a deeply religious, churchgoing family interprets experiences differently than do children of the atheists next door.  Quakers and Hindus have a different understanding of the world, literally a different perspective.


The way we see the world around us is profoundly influenced by what our family believes and how it acts.  If our parents were always worried about what might befall them or us, we may have come to believe that the world is unsafe or unpredictable; we may live in a state of constant fear and anxiety.  If family conflicts were resolved with screaming and yelling, its reasonable to believe that anger is the only tactic that works. We may respond by spending our life avoiding intimate relationships entirely.  If, on the other hand, our childhood was smooth and serene, we are likely to trust that the world is an OK place.


Of course, not everyone responds in the same way to education, neighbourhood, or the class bully.  Our personal paradigm reflects not only our culture, family, and life experiences but the ways that we, because of our unique temperament, have interpreted and responded to our environment.  Our openness to what is new affects our view of the world.  Research has shown that some people are inherently more adventurous and less conservative than others, hence more open to trying new things. (Lambrou P, Pratt G. (2000) Instant Emotional Healing, Rider Books)


        These distortions can exacerbate any challenge we are under.  Look at this list and see what thinking errors may apply to you.


1.      Black and White Thinking (All or Nothing Thinking)(Polarized Thinking)


We tend to see things as being all wrong or all right, for example, if we make one mistake we see ourselves as having failed.  We see things or people as being all good or all bad.  We are a total success or we are a total failure.  We are either completely 100% right or we are 100% wrong.  The reality is we all make mistakes.  Life is a learning process and nobody is perfect.


        We look at everything in all or nothing terms (Palmer course)

        Example I had trouble scraping together the money for the rent this month.  Im a horrible spouse and a failure

        Perfectionism or all or nothing thinking goes hand in hand with either/or thinking.  Either Im a success or Im a failure, if it is not 100% it is no good.  Everything is seen in black and white (An end to Panic)

        Things are black and white, good or bad.  You have to be perfect or you are a failure there is no middle ground. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)


        We tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for middle ground.  People and things are good or bad, wonderful or horrible.  This creates a black and white world.  The greatest danger in polarised thinking is its impact on how we judge ourselves.  It you are not perfect or brilliant then you must be a failure or an idiot.  There is no room for mistakes or mediocrity.  (McKay M (1995) Thoughts and Feelings)


Do you ever see things in black and white?

Give examples over the last two weeks














2.  Overgeneralization


When we experience a single, negative event such as not getting a job that we applied for, we tend to think we will never get a job ever again.  We make a mistake and we think we can never do things right.  We make conclusions based on single events.  Everything I do turns out wrong.


        We come to general conclusions based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once we expect it to happen over and over again.  (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)

        Somebody says something critical about our work we immediately think that all of our work is never any good.

        We think everything is going wrong when only one thing has gone wrong. (When we overgeneralise we draw conclusions about all sorts of things from just one event.) (Holdsworth N. Paxton R. (1999) Managing Anxiety and Depression: A Self Help Guide, Mental Health Foundation)

        We view one negative event as a never ending pattern of defeat (S. Palmer Stress Correspondence course)

        Example My friend rejected me, therefore nobody will ever love me.

        If one person does not get on with us, we may think no one likes us. If one of our tasks has not been finished we think, Ive achieved nothing, nothing has been done.  In other words from one thing that has happened to us, we draw a negative conclusion which is much bigger and covers all sorts of things. (Northumberland self help guide depression.)

        We make broad, generalised conclusions based on a single instant or piece of evidence.  Overgeneralizations are often couched in the form of absolute statements, as if there was some immutable law that governs and limits our chances for happiness.  We are over generalising when we absolutely conclude that, nobody loves us . . . well never be able to trust anyone again . . . we will always be sad . . . we could never get a better job . . . no one would stay our friend if they really knew us.  Our conclusion is based on one or two pieces of evidence and carefully ignores everything we know about ourselves to the contrary.  Cue words that indicate we may be over generalising are all, every, none, never, always, everybody and nobody.  (McKay M (1995) Thoughts and Feelings)


Do you ever over generalise?

Think back over the last two weeks and list examples
















3.      Catastrophising (Thinking the Worst)


We automatically think the worst is going to happen and it will be awful and we wont be able to cope. 


        We expect disaster; we notice or hear about a problem and start what ifs. What if tragedy strikes? What if it happens to us. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)

        Catastrophising is closely related to overestimating.  Not only could the bad event take place but extreme and horrible consequences are bound to follow.  It involves imagining the worse case scenario, often stated in What if terms.  The person also underestimates their ability to cope with the event. (An end to Panic)


        Our partner was due to meet us 20 minutes ago they have not turned up and we start thinking the worst and we start imagining they have been in an accident.

        My relationship broke up, so nobody will want a relationship with me.

        We think things are worse than they really are.

        Catastrophic thoughts often start with the words what if, we read a newspaper article describing a tragedy and start wondering if it will happen to us.  What if I break my leg skiing, what if they hijack my plain . . . what if my son starts taking drugs . . . the list is endless.  (McKay M (1995) Thoughts and Feelings)


Do you ever think the worse will happen?

Give examples over the last two weeks













4.  Exaggerating or Overestimating the Risk


        Overestimating means to greatly exaggerate the odds of dangerous or bad events happening, even if it has never occurred before. (End to Panic)


Do you ever exaggerate or overestimate the risk?

Give examples over the last two weeks












5.  Mental Filter (Tunnel Vision)(Selective Abstraction)


We filter out all the good things that life has and overly focus on negative parts of life.  We pick on a single negative detail and dwell on it.  We overly dwell on the negative and totally ignore the positives.  We make predictions about what will happen to us in the future based on little information.  ie Someone says we have done well, but we discount this because we say it was only said to be nice, it wasnt really meant; or 100 good reviews and one bad review and we focus on the single bad review.  Examples

        We dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives (Palmer stress course)

        We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering our all positive aspects of a situation. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)

        This distortion looks at only one element of the situation to the exclusion of everything else.  A single detail is picked out and the whole of the event or situation is coloured by this detail.  Each person has his own particular tunnel to look through.  The process of remembering can be very selective.  From your entire life you may habitually remember only certain kind of events.  We tend to magnify and awfulize.  We put negative things out of context, isolated from all the good experiences. (McKay M. (1995) Thoughts and Feelings, New Harbinger)


Do you filter out positive things in life exaggerating the negative?

Give examples over the last two weeks












6.  Magnifying or Minimising (Binocular Vision)


We blow things out of proportion.  We make mountains out of molehills. We tend to minimise the strengths and qualities of ourselves and others and magnify and exaggerate the supposed weaknesses, mistakes and errors.

        Example We blow things out of proportion or we shrink their importance inappropriately (Palmer course)


Do you magnify weaknesses and minimise strengths?

Give examples over the past two weeks

















7.  Personalisation and Blame


If something bad happens we assume it is our fault.  We tend to blame ourselves solely for situations and events that we were not entirely responsible for.  On the other hand we take no personal responsibility, we blame other people and situations.


        We blame ourselves for something we are not totally responsible for.

        Or we blame other people and overlook ways that our attitudes and behaviour might contribute to a problem.


        Example If I had done a better job as a mother my daughter would not be depressed.

        Often if our mood is low we blame ourselves for anything that goes wrong, even if things have nothing to do with us in reality.  Eg We go into the local shop and the assistant is offhand, we think She doesnt like me, have I done something wrong? But the most likely reason is that she is tired or upset or has had a bad day. We have taken the blame personally. (Depression and Low Mood: A Self-help Guide Northumberland NHS 1999)

        Thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to us.  We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking etc. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)

        It is the tendency to relate everything around us to ourselves.  A depressed mother blames herself when she sees any sadness in her children.  A man whose wife complains about rising prices hears the complaint as an attack on his abilities as a breadwinner.  A major aspect of personalisation is the habit of continually comparing our self to other people.  He plays the piano so much better than I do . . .I am the slowest person in the office . . . The opportunities for comparison never end.  The underlying assumption is that our worth is questionable.  We are therefore continually forced to test our value as a person by measuring ourselves against others.  The basic thinking error in personalisation is that we interpret each experience, each conversation, each look as a clue to our worth and value. (McKay M (1995) Thoughts and Feelings)




Do you take things personally when theyve probably got little to do with you?  Give examples from the past two weeks













8.  Labelling and Mislabelling (Global Labelling)


We call ourselves and other people by negative names for supposed shortcomings, such as Im an idiot, Shes a moron, Im stupid.  These are not based on the facts, but on only one or two negative incidents.


        You identify with your shortcomings.  Instead of saying I made a mistake you tell yourself youre a fool, nerd, or loser (Palmer)

        You generalise one or two qualities into a negative global judgement (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)

        A person who refused to give you a lift home is a total jerk.  Republicans are a bunch of money hungry toadies.  Your boss is a gutless imbecile.  Each of these labels may contain a grain of truth.  Yet it generalises one or two qualities into a global judgement.  The label ignores all contrary evidence, making your views of the world stereotyped and one-dimensional. (McKay (1995) Thoughts and Feelings)


Do you give negative names to yourself or others?

Give examples from the last two weeks












9.  Jumping to Conclusions (Crystal Ball Gazing)


We tend to make a negative interpretation even though we do not have all the facts to support our view.


a.         Mind Reading (Arbitrary Inference) We think we know what other people are thinking about us, for example, that they think we are stupid, incompetent, and may disapprove of us, we do not bother to check this out.  If a friend walks by on the other side of the street we mind read and think we may have offended them and they are ignoring us because of this.

        We assume that people are reacting negatively to us when there is no evidence for this. (Palmer course)

        When we mind read we make snap judgements about others, Hes afraid to show he cares . . . Shes with you for the money.  There is no evidence, but it just seems right.  In most instances mind readers make assumptions about how other people are feeling and what motivates them.  As mind readers we also make assumptions about how people are reacting to things around them, particularly how they are reacting to us.  This close he sees how unattractive I am . . . She thinks Im really immature.  These assumptions are usually untested.  They are borne of intuition, hunches, vague misgivings, or one or two past experiences but never the less they are believed.  Mind reading depends on a process called projection.  We imagine that people feel the same way as we do and react to things the same way we do.  If we get angry when someone is late we imagine every one acts that way.  If we are very judgemental about particular habits and traits we assume others share our belief.  Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for them without checking if they are true for other people. (McKay M (1995) Thoughts and Feelings)


b.         Fortune Telling We anticipate that things will turn out badly and are convinced that our prediction is an already established fact.

        We arbitrarily predict that things will turn out badly (Palmer)

        Without their saying so we know what people are feeling about us and why they act the way they do.  In particular, we are able to divine how people are feeling towards us. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)


Do you jump to conclusions about what others are thinking

or about what will happen?

Give examples from the last two weeks










10.  Emotional Reasoning


We let our feelings guide our interpretation of reality.  We may be so stressed that we have difficulty with our emotions and therefore conclude that our marriage is not working, when in fact it is our blunted emotions that are causing the problem. 

        We reason from how we feel I feel like an idiot, so I must really be one. (No ref)

        Using emotions as evidence occurs when we consider our feelings to be all of reality ie if something is felt, then it must be true.  This involves the notion that the stronger something is felt, the more it is a sign of truth. (An end to Panic)

        We believe that what we feel must be true automatically.  If we feel stupid and boring then we must be stupid and boring. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)


Do you make judgements about life on the way you are feeling?

Give examples over the last two weeks












11.  Discounting the Positive


Here we trivialise the positive things about ourselves and others saying that they do not count.

        Example We insist that our accomplishments or positive qualities do not count (Palmer course).

        Ignoring the positive People who are depressed tend to focus their thinking on negative or bad events ignoring the positive or good events. Example, you missed a goal during football but played well in general, after the game you just think about that one missed shot and not the rest of the game played well.  You may have many good friends who youve known for years but concentrate and worry about the one that has fallen out with you rather than remembering all the good friendships. (Northumberland self help guide depression)

        We concentrate entirely on bad things and ignore the good things.  When we ignore the positive we forget about the good things in our lives.  It seems that all we have in life are bad things.

(Holdsworth N. Paxton R. (1999) Managing Anxiety and Depression: A Self Help Guide, Mental Health Foundation)


Do you sometimes ignore the positive?

Give examples over the past two weeks














12.  Being Right


        P217: The Depression Workbook, Mary-Ellen Copeland.  In this thinking error we believe the way we think and behave is correct and anybody who does not is wrong.

        We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct.  Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)

        In this distortion we are usually on the defensive.  We must continually prove that our viewpoint is correct, our assumptions about the world accurate and all our actions correct.  We are not interested in the possible veracity of a differing opinion only in defending our own.  Every decision we make is right, every task we perform is done competently, we never make mistakes.  Our opinions rarely change because we have difficulty hearing new information.  If the facts do not fit what we already believe we ignore them.  Having to be right makes us very hard of hearing. (McKay (1995) Thoughts and Feelings)



Do you always try to prove that your opinions and actions are right?

Give examples from the last two weeks













13.  Fairness


        In fairness thinking distortion we tend to judge peoples actions by rules about what we think is fair or not fair.

        Example If my husband really cared about my wellness, he would take on more responsibility with house and kids. (Copeland)

        You feel resentful because you think you know what is fair but other people wont agree with you. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)


Do you judge things and people by your belief of what is fair?

Give examples from the last two weeks
















14.  Blaming


        Difficult things that happen are someone elses fault or our own

        Example Im depressed because my family was completely dysfunctional (Copeland)

        We hold other people responsible for our pain or take the other tack and blame our self for every problem. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)

  • There is such relief in knowing whose to blame.  If we are suffering someone must be responsible.  You are lonely, hurt and frightened and someone provoked those feelings.  A man got angry because his wife suggested he build the fence hed been meaning to put up, she ought to have known how tired he was she was being totally insensitive.  The problem was that he expected her to be clairvoyant to read his mind, when it was his responsibility to inform her of his fatigue and say no.  Blaming often involves making someone else responsible for choices and decisions that are our own responsibility.  A woman blamed the butcher for selling hamburger that was full of fat but it was really her problem she could have paid for more leaner meat or gone to a different butcher.  In blame systems, somebody is always doing it to us and we have no responsibility to assert our needs, say no or go else where for what we want.  Some people focus blame exclusively on themselves; they beat themselves up constantly for being incompetent, insensitive, stupid etc.  They are always ready to be wrong.  (McKay M (1995) Thoughts and Feelings)


Do you blame yourself or others for problems that occur?

Give examples from the last two weeks














15.  Heavens Reward Fallacy


        We believe that if we always do the right thing, we will eventually be rewarded (even if doing the right thing means ignoring our own needs) (Copeland)

        We expect all our sacrifice and self denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score.  We feel bitter when there is no reward. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)

        In this framework for viewing the world we always do the right think in hope of a reward.  We sacrifice and slave and all the while imagine that we are collecting brownie points that we can cash in some day.  The problem is that while we are doing the right thing we can physically and emotionally bankrupt ourselves. (McKay M (1995) Thoughts and Feelings)


Do you always do the right thing in order to be rewarded?

Give examples from the last two weeks











16.  Ego-centric Thinking


        Others have added egocentric thinking as a cognitive distortion People must think the way I do (Lambrou P. Pratt G. (2000) Instant Emotional Healing.)


Do you believe everyone should think in the same way as you?

Give examples from the last two weeks










17.  Telepathy Error


        People should know how I feel without me having to tell them (Lambrou P. Pratt G. (2000) Instant Emotional Healing.)


Do you believe others should know how you feel without you telling them?

Give examples from the last two weeks












18.  Control Fallacies


        If we feel externally controlled we see our self as a helpless victim of fate.  The fallacy of internal control has us responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)


Do you either believe that you have no control, so are helpless or do you believe that you control and are responsible for everyone around you?

Give examples from the last two weeks













19.  Perfectionism






















20.  Awfulising



















21.  Exaggerating the Negative


        This means we think things are much worse than they really are.  We jump to a gloomy conclusion and believe it will happen.


        Example We make a mistake at work and fear we will be dismissed.  We spend a lot of time worrying that we have upset a friend to find that she did not even remember the comment.

(Northumberland self help guide depression)


Do you ever exaggerate the negative?

Think back over the last two weeks and list them












22.     Living By Fixed Rules


Fretting about how things ought to be; over using the words should, must, and cant. (An End to Panic)


Do you live by shoulds, musts and cannots. 

Give examples from the last two weeks












23.     Fallacy of Change


        We expect that other people will change to suit us if we pressure them enough.  We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them. (Dr Cynthia R. Davis)

        The Chinese philosopher Confucius said the only thing that is certain in life is change.  Change is not all bad if we did not change we would still be living in the caves. (My notes)


Do you believe that others need to change to suit you?

Give examples from the last two weeks
















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