male teenager struggling with mental health

10 Kinds of Thoughts That Harm Mental Health

The way people think is shaped by our personal experiences, feelings, beliefs, genetics, and more. Each thought is personal and unique. However, not all thoughts are equally true or helpful.

Throughout life, many people have formed patterns of thoughts that are unhealthy coping mechanisms that have no basis in the reality of a given situation. These are called thought distortions or cognitive distortions, and they can take a serious toll on a person’s mental health.

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that cause people to perceive reality in ways that are inaccurate and typically negative. In other words, it’s when your mind tells you lies that hurt.

Our brains aren’t trying to hurt us when they come up with thought distortions. Instead, these patterns are learned and have become habits over time. Many people develop cognitive distortions due to adverse or traumatic events in life. The longer these events go on, the more likely these thought patterns are to form.

It’s not all bad news, however. The fact that we can learn negative thought patterns means that we can also learn positive, helpful thought patterns that are based in reality. But first, we must identify the distortions we have so that we can turn them around.

The 10 Types of Thought Distortions

Doctor Aaron Beck first described and defined cognitive distortions based on his research in the 1960s. In the decades since, mental health researchers have identified 10 unique types of thought distortions:

  1. Polarized Thinking also known as “black-and-white” or “all-or-nothing” thinking. These distorted thoughts make people believe that something is either entirely good or entirely bad. Example: “If I am not perfect, I am a failure.”
  2. Labeling – reducing oneself into just one descriptive word that is usually negative. Example: “I’m just a drunk.”
  3. Overgeneralizing – inaccurately applying a conclusion about one event to everything in life. Example: “I failed this test. I suck at everything.”
  4. Emotional Reasoning – believing that emotions always reflect the reality of the situation. Emotions are important and need to be felt; but the reality doesn’t always match how people feel. Example: Having a panic attack and believing something bad will happen because you’re worried.
  5. Catastrophizing – assuming the worst possible scenario is likely to happen whenever something goes wrong. Example: A friend hasn’t texted back. You assume that they actually hate you and they are telling your other friends how much they hate you. And soon you’ll be all alone.
  6. Should, Must, and Ought – believing there are a list of behaviors and attributes that need to apply to all people equally. When they aren’t living up to those rigid standards, these thoughts make the person feel guilty or angry. Example: “I should volunteer more.”
  7. Personalization – blaming oneself for issues or situations that are beyond your control, or taking things personally when they don’t have to do with you. Example: “My friend got drunk at the party and ruined everyone’s night. If I had just kept her from drinking so much, it would have been better. This is my fault.”
  8. Discounting the Positive – dismissing anything positive in the situation and believing all good things that happen are accidents. Example: “I only got a promotion because I got lucky.”
  9. Mind Reading – assuming you know what other people think, and it’s almost always negative. Example: “Everyone thinks I’m ugly.”
  10. Mental Filtering – related to discounting the positive. Filtering all positive things into negative thoughts and allowing negative thoughts to go unchecked. Example: Ignoring all the fun you had today and thinking only of the moment you stumbled.

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What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological therapy in which patients learn to change their thoughts and, in turn, their behaviors as well. Beck developed this method as a direct response to the thought distortions he defined.

This approach to therapy is the basis of most individual therapy today. Licensed therapists can use it to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including:

Many people refer to CBT simply as “talk therapy,” or even just, “therapy.”

How Does CBT Work?

CBT works by challenging distorted thoughts and finding alternative coping mechanisms. During therapy sessions, patients and providers work together to identify the patient’s common thought distortions and find replacement thoughts. Over time, these new thoughts positively affect the patient’s mood and behavior.

Patients typically see results after a few weeks or months of CBT. Sometimes, CBT is the only treatment someone needs. Other times, it is part of a broader treatment plan.