The Most Common Cognitive Distortions in Anxiety

10 September, 2020
Your own mind can be your worst enemy, Knowing the mechanisms it uses to increase anxious thinking can help you better manage these states and gain control over your mental universe.

Cognitive distortions in anxiety have a very clear goal: to intensify suffering. The mind falls captive of rigid and negative thought patterns. As a result, there’s no logic or internal balance, only worry. The world becomes a threat and every problem, no matter how small, has no solution.

Now, these types of psychological dynamics are characteristic of conditions such as anxiety or depression. Nonetheless, we must note that everyone uses cognitive distortions. For example, every individual has thought things such as “I’m feeling quite clumsy right now. I guess I really am incompetent”. 

Basically, the mind processes certain situations in an erroneous and harmful way. However, most of the time, we try to stay in control. When we analyze reality in a calmer way, we choose to use a more realistic and friendly attitude.

The problem arises when it simply isn’t possible to be analytic and rational. In that case, everything becomes extremely complex and we become incapable of controlling what goes through our mind. In other words, our psychological resources are minimal, and that’s when we end up feeding those draining negative distortions.

That being said, it’s important to keep your cognitive distortions from getting the best of you. Identifying them, learning how they work, and disempowering them is the best thing you can do.

The most common cognitive distortions in anxiety

“I can’t stand this, it’s unbearable. I think I’m going crazy”, “I’m worthless”, “I’m pretty sure things are only going to get worse from now on”. This type of reasoning creates a type of mental fog where there’s only room for anguish. If you persistently reinforce these types of thoughts, you’ll end up exhausted.

Cognitive distortions are tricks of the mind, systematic ways in which people distort information about the environment, what happens around them, and what they perceive. It isn’t easy for an individual to tell why they choose to use this type of mechanism. Sometimes, it’s due to a feedback system between the emotions and the thoughts themselves.

Think about it, it’s a cycle. You feel bad so you start thinking negatively. As a result, you feel even worse. Other times, cognitive distortions are schemes that an individual uses throughout their whole life without even realizing it. A complicated upbringing or non-affectionate parents may lead someone to interpret things incorrectly. Also, it’s easier to get into these mental traps if you have low self-esteem.

An image representing the most common cognitive distortions in anxiety.

Here are the most common cognitive distortions in anxiety:

Catastrophizing

Always thinking the worst to be prepared for anything. People often assume that this is a good strategy when, in reality, all they get from it is significantly increasing their own anxiety levels.

Here are two common examples of this cognitive distortion: “If I fail this test, I won’t be good at my career” and “I know we’re all going to get fired soon and everything’s going to go downhill”.

Dichotomous thinking

When we talk about dichotomous thinking, we refer to any reasoning that begins with the words “always”, “never”, “all”, or “nothing”. Basically, it’s a way to process reality, where everything is either black or white. You’re either with me or against me; I’m either doing great or terribly.

This way of attributing extreme values without a middle ground leads to great suffering.

Selective abstraction

Have you noticed that your attention sometimes has a twisted tendency to see the negative side of life in every situation? Selective abstraction is one of the most common cognitive distortions in anxiety. It happens when the person only focuses on the dark side of their reality. This way, they interpret situations in the most harmful way for themselves.

An example of this type of thinking is “I invited everyone in the office to my birthday party and Claudia didn’t show. I’m sure she hates me and the rest are here probably out of obligation”. 

Personalization, one of the most common cognitive distortions in anxiety

“My boss is arguing with someone in the office. It’s probably due to something I did wrong.” “The cashier was rude to me. It’s probably because I’m just not likable.” “My friend did badly on the test. This is my fault; I could’ve helped her out more. I’m a horrible friend.” 

This type of reasoning is the result of the negative internal dialogue individuals use to personalize each fact and act as if they were entirely their responsibility.

A worried-looking woman looking down.

Arbitrary inference

Anxiety has a tendency to make people believe that they’re the Oracle of Delphi. If you have anxiety, you know it’s easy to assume the role of fortune-teller in many different situations. The most common are the following:

  • You think you’re 100% sure of what others think of you. So much so that your mind doesn’t stop torturing you with ideas such as “He thinks I’m a loser” or “She’s my friend only out of pity”.
  • Likewise, it’s also common to fall into the trap of “seeing the future”. You tell yourself you’re not going to do something right, that everything is going to go badly for you, etc.

In brief, learning about the most common cognitive distortions in anxiety gives you two powerful tools. For one, it allows you to detect these thought patterns that make you uncomfortable. Secondly, you’re able to realize how the human mind works and how it can become your worst enemy if you don’t set boundaries.

Learn to take care of your mind. After all, it’s the place where thoughts, reason, emotions, and even chaos come to be.