Training: Cognitive Distortions


What we think strongly affects how we feel. When we’re feeling stressed, anxious, or worried, our thoughts about ourselves or the thing we’re worried about are almost always negative. This exercise is designed to help you decide if your thoughts are negative, and if they are how you can change them. You might be surprised by what you discover about yourself.

We’re going to use language that may be a little different than you’re used to, but there is a reason for this. Instead of calling them “worries,” we’re going to refer to our stressful thoughts as “automatic thoughts.” Using “automatic thoughts” lets us take a step back and observe ourselves the way a scientist might. There are two problems with automatic thoughts. One problem is that they are often negative, and the second problem is that they seem to “just happen” without our conscious control. They influence us without our realizing it.

Automatic thoughts, because they are negative, are often “distorted” by our own personal way of looking at life and the world. For example, have you ever gotten a compliment from someone and thought to yourself, “they didn’t really mean that,” or “if they really knew me they wouldn’t be complimenting me,” ? If so, that is an example of distorted thinking. You are making an assumption about the person’s motives or their ignorance without any evidence to support your assumption. How do you know they didn’t really mean it?

There are 10 different types of distortions, or “cognitive distortions,” that cover virtually all worries or automatic thoughts. You can download the pdf file of the cognitive distortions for your own use, and they are also listed below.

In addition to cognitive distortions, there are also four “fallacies.” The fallacies are like the “engine” of our automatic thoughts: they are our philosophical approaches to life. For example, one fallacy is the “fallacy of control.” If you believe in this fallacy, it means you assume an inaccurate amount of control. You either believe you should control everything, or you might believe you have no control over anything. It’s considered inaccurate because no one can have control over everything, and likewise everyone has some control over some things in their lives. The fallacies are also in a pdf file that you can download.


Test your knowledge of cognitive distortions with the Automatic Thoughts Exercise.

Automatic Thoughts

FAQs - Frequently Asked Questions

1) If my thinking is "distorted" does that mean something's wrong with me?

2) You suggest my thinking is unrealistic, but I think I'm being very realistic!

3) What can I do if other people's distorted thinking is affecting me?

If my thinking is "distorted" does that mean something's wrong with me?

No. We use the term "distorted" to reinforce the fact that your worry may not be reality-based, but is being altered by your own particular style of worrying. In this case "distorted" is not pathological at all.

You suggest my thinking is unrealistic, but I think I'm being very realistic!

Maybe you are being realistic. Just for the sake of argument, what if you're only 90% realistic and 10% unrealistic? That mean's you're worrying 10% "more" than you really have to. Try to keep an open mind and consider the possibilty that there might be some small changes you can make that may relieve some (but not all) of your stress.

What can I do if other people's distorted thinking is affecting me?

That's a tough one. If you haven't already, you could try and talk to them about how they are affecting you. Maybe they could consider looking at this page? It is possible they don't know how much their expectations of you are affecting you. If you tried talking to them when they are relatively calm and have time to talk you might make some progress.

Remember to Think Small

Think Small IconWhat's one small thing you can do to reduce your stress? Try it as an experiment and see what happens. You can always go back to your old way of doing things.




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