Overcoming Cognitive Distortions in Treatment and Early Recovery

What are Cognitive Distortions?

If we’ve learned one thing throughout the recovery process, it’s that our minds aren’t infallible. In fact, our thoughts can actually betray us more often that we’d like to admit. Consider the student who fails a test and assumes they just aren’t cut out for college. Or the woman whose boyfriend is late for a date, so she assumes he has been in a horrible car accident.

These negative, inaccurate perceptions are referred to as cognitive distortions. You can think of them as mental errors that turn into bad habits. Some of us are raised in situations that promote these distortions; for example, if your parent was an alcoholic, you may have felt the need to predict their reactions before they happened. Children who are victims of trauma become acquainted with presuming that “the unknown” automatically translates into “the worst possible outcome.” No matter how you began fostering cognitive distortions, your life can improve by overcoming them.

First, let’s look at common “thinking traps” that affect many of us each day.


Most Common Cognitive Distortions

These patterns of problematic thought can lead to anxiety, depression, relationship issues, trouble at work, and other difficulties. To address them, we first must identify our own thinking errors.

Black and White Thinking

“All or nothing” thinking puts everything in extremes. Its biggest flaw? When you think this way, you can’t see the gray areas in life.


This distorted thought process leads you to assume the worst in the face of the unknown. It is common to survivors of trauma and those with chronic pain.

Taking Things Personally

Personalization can take several forms; you may blame yourself for things beyond your control or assume that others are excluding you on purpose. It’s a recipe for anxiety and depression.


Overgeneralization is particularly insidious. In this instance, you draw one conclusion about a specific instance and apply it broadly. For example, if a relationship ends, an overgeneralizer may assume that this means they are unlovable.

Having a Negative Filter

People with this cognitive distortion can’t see the silver lining. Instead, they focus on the worst in every situation and discount the positive. This is associated with increased suicidality. 


It’s not helpful to obsess over what you “should” be able to do. These “oughta” feelings are often rooted in one’s childhood or family structure; they reduce self-esteem and raise anxiety.

Thinking That Feelings are Facts

Emotional reasoning is one of the most insidious cognitive distortions. People with this habit may believe that something is true because they feel a certain way about it, eschewing physical evidence in the process.

Mind Reading

Socially anxious people assume they know what their friends and family members are thinking – often, it isn’t anything good. This is most common among children with anxiety.

Do any of these cognitive distortions sound familiar? Luckily, it is possible to train our brains and resolve these issues over time.


Change Your Thoughts to Change Your Life

With a little effort (and occasional professional intervention), we can modify our thought patterns to reduce cognitive distortions. Here are some steps that you can take to start the process.

Name That Distortion

If you find yourself feeling upset, try using the list above to identify your distortion. Once you have put a name to the sensation, it loses its power and you can begin taking steps to improve your mood.

Identify Your Triggers

Use a journal to keep a record of each time you identify a distortion. In that entry, make a note of what you were doing when you began to catastrophize, ignore the positive or “should’ve.” Understanding the people, places and situations that catalyze negative thoughts can help you to prepare or cope in the future.

Choose Your Response

After you’ve figured out what your cognitive distortions are and what causes them, you can begin changing how you react. Here are a few options for responding in the moment:

  • Try a deep breathing exercise
  • Focus on mindfulness – consider a meditation or counting to ten
  • Distract yourself with something fun
  • Call a friend or family member for support
  • Write about your feelings

Get Professional Help

Finally, cognitive behavioral therapy is the best solution to deeply rooted cognitive distortions. By working with a therapist, you can address harmful beliefs and trauma responses. With time, you should see an improvement in your symptoms.

If you are in need of professional help for cognitive distortions, please contact Cumberland Heights. Our addiction treatment programming also includes dual diagnosis care for those with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. Through the assistance of licensed counselors, you can reclaim your mind and banish negative thoughts for good. Contact us when you are ready to learn more.