Mental health problems like depression and anxiety are caused by a combination of biological and cognitive factors. In fact, our beliefs, our thoughts, and the stories we tell ourselves can directly impact the physical sensations we feel in our bodies. That is because our thoughts can impact the very same neurotransmitters that are responsible for feelings like happiness, fear, or anxiety. 

It is more common for people dealing with serious depression or stress to have negative and unhelpful thought patterns, also known as cognitive distortions. These harmful beliefs and thoughts actually arise from a helpful place. The brain is trying to make sense of a difficult, uncertain, or traumatic situation. 

However, unconscious thoughts draw information from our less developed hindbrains rather than our more rational frontal cortex. For this reason, cognitive distortions rarely reflect reality. In fact, cognitive distortions often make it more difficult for people to navigate their everyday lives.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a talk-therapy approach that zeros in on identifying cognitive distortions and replacing them with more reasonable thoughts. This process is known as cognitive restructuring. While cognitive distortions can vary for each person, these thought patterns tend to share some similar features.


This distortion is designed to help people avoid danger. When it comes to safety, the brain doesn’t want to spend energy making nuanced calculations. Instead, it will use the outcome of a single event as a template for all similar events in the future. 

This distortion is what makes people believe they will die alone after a single failed relationship or that they are doomed to failure due to one bad job interview. CBT encourages individuals to re-examine thoughts that include the phrases, never and always. This usually indicates that the belief is mostly likely centered on irrational beliefs rather than truth. 


In this case, the brain chooses to ignore information that would challenge a pre-held belief. For example, an individual who engages in self-loathing would have a negative filter about themselves. They ignore their achievements and compliments from others and instead focus on negative feedback.

Since filtering is a deeply ingrained distortion, most people will have to start combating these thoughts with rational observations. A CBT worksheet may ask an individual to write down logical refutations of their worldview, or even replace negative words with more positive language. So the thought “I am not good enough,” can be restricted as “I have room to grow.”


While it is good to be prepared for delays or challenges, always expecting the worst possible outcome is cognitively exhausting. This distortion is more likely to occur when a person has little control over an outcome or is facing a high amount of uncertainty. 

CBT encourages people who catastrophize to challenge their assumptions and rationally estimate the actual likelihood of the worst-case scenario occurring. Some CBT exercises ask individuals to brainstorm a backup plan for the worst-case scenario. This can help individuals regain some control and reduce their anxiety. 


Blaming others for one’s internal emotions gives too much control to other people. People with this distortion may not realize that they can control their own reactions, even if they cannot prevent others from causing them harm. 

This distortion can also occur when people do not want to take responsibility for their role in a problem. For example, an individual may pin all of their relationship issues solely on their partner without examining their own behaviors and actions.

Blaming also occurs the other way around. People may blame themselves for outcomes that were completely out of their control.  This distortion can be effectively reframed by ranking situations where an individual has complete, some, or no control, and challenging blaming thoughts based on that exercise. 


Fallacies are beliefs and statements built upon poor reasoning. Many of the brain’s cognitive distortions arise from fallacious thinking. For example, people may wrongly assume people will change for them, or expect equal and fair treatment at all times. 

These fallacies are very common and often reinforced throughout society. The popular concept that hard work will result in economic advancement is actually a logical fallacy, as effort and financial reward is often not correlated at all. 

Challenging cognitive fallacies requires gathering input from other people’s perspectives and experiences. A CBT practitioner would also encourage individuals with these types of distortions to redefine the social-emotional boundaries between themselves and other people.