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Anxiety Cognitive Distortions … the cause of our anxiety thoughts



What is a cognitive distortion?

  • This is a term used by CBT therapist to identify unhelpful or irrational thoughts. They are the thinking errors that can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

  • Think of them as the labels that all unhelpful thoughts can be filed under.

  • For example, the thought “I’m going to fail this test” would be filed under the cognitive distortion label future tripping.

Why are they important?

  • Cognitive distortions are the thoughts that cause people to have a negative or unhelpful worldview. In order to shift into a more balanced worldview, the thoughts that create the negative perspective need to be examined.

How many cognitive distortions are there?

  • Depending on who you ask, there are around 10 – 15 different types of cognitive distortions.

What are the cognitive distortions common in anxiety?

  • The two most common anxiety cognitive distortions are catastrophizing and future tripping.

What is catastrophizing?

  • Assuming the worst case scenario is definitely going to happen right now, in this moment.

  • A typical example of this is a panic attack. During a panic attack, people believe they are experiencing a heart attack and are (understandably) fearful they are about to die.

  • Other examples include being faced with a phobia, not allowing oneself to engage in an OCD ritualized behavior, or the common fear that happens when we arrive late to a meeting or class that started 10 minutes ago.

What is future tripping?

  • Assuming the worst case scenario is definitely going to happen at some point in the future.

  • A typical example of this is social anxiety. Prior to an event, assuming that something “bad” is going to happen and other people will judge you negatively as a result. Often clients will say “I’m worried that when I present during the all hands meeting my mouth will go dry. Everyone will know I’m nervous and weak.”

If they’re so unhelpful, why do people have cognitive distortions?

  • Sometimes cognitive distortions are created on their own, sometimes they are taught, but ironically they exist because they help to cope with a difficult situation.

  • An insecurity / unpleasant feeling is triggered, and people unconsciously re-frame the situation with a cognitive distortion to alleviate themselves from the unpleasant feeling – even though it’s not helpful in the long term.

  • For example, saying “I’m going to die” during a panic attack is a way of understanding a situation, and through this understanding, attempting to create a sense of control. The known will always feel more tolerable than the unknown.

What can I do to prevent myself from having anxiety causing cognitive distortions?

  • Try to be as aware as possible of your anxiety in the moment. Unless you are in a highly traumatic situation, there’s a good chance that your anxiety is entering unhelpful levels. Some anxiety is absolutely normal and expected, depending on the situation.

  • With this awareness, ask yourself what you think the worst case scenario is going to be, and if you think it is happening now, or in the future.

  • Apply a more balanced perspective to the moment. Yes, this is likely a difficult situation, but is it really as scary as your are thinking it is going to be.

  • If needed, you can help develop a more balanced view by completing a thought record.

Please feel free to reach out to Good Therapy SF if you feel you need more assistance in reducing your anxiety.