11 Cognitive Distortions for Students
I’m a university student in a program that has an admission requirement of a 90% average from grade 12 in high school. I absolutely love my program, but I have heard oh so often from my mental health professionals that it is a breeding ground for mental health issues. I attribute it to the fact that many (not all) high-achieving students lead their lives in the spirit of perfectionism – not allowing themselves much room for failure, or even punishing themselves for failure. I believe that many of us fall victim to an array of automatic thoughts when we interpret a situation as a failure on our part. These thoughts are often cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are methods our brain uses to convince us that certain untrue thoughts are true.
In cognitive behaviour therapy-based psychotherapy (one of the most popular and effective forms of psychotherapy), one central tenet is working on thought redirection. This is because according to the CBT model, your thoughts, attitudes and beliefs have a large impact on both your interpretations of your world and your own emotions.
CBT therapy targets the psychological aspect of mental illness, which deals with how a person perceives themselves, others, and the world. Individuals suffering from mental illness often struggle with cognitive distortions, creating positive feedback loops of perceiving a situation, thinking a hurtful untrue thought, feeling a yucky emotion, and then further thinking thoughts that reinforce the untrue thought and feeling progressively more intense emotions about that situation or past or subsequent situations.
Having said this, I am a huge believer that learning about these mind pitfalls is beneficial for everyone, regardless of whether or not you have a formal diagnosis. Those who do not suffer from a mental illness are still permeable to these cognitive distortions. Learning how to recognize, identify, and redirect cognitive distortions are life skills that can bolster anyone’s mental health and resiliency.
This series will likely be broken down into two posts. This first one is to get you thinking about how to recognize and identify the cognitive distortions. The second will be ways to redirect these thoughts when they arise. So let’s dive right in!
Photo by N I C
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1. All-or-Nothing Thinking (Black-or-White Thinking)
This cognitive distortion occurs when a person sees a situation and/or themselves in extreme polarities – there is no grey area.
- “I know I’m on a diet. Why did I drink that double latte with whipped cream? Ugh, my diet is ruined. I’m gonna go grab a pack of timbits too. Honestly, I may as well.”
- “My girlfriend wants to spend the weekend with her friends? She obviously doesn’t care about me. She’s abandoning me.”
- “I failed my midterm. I may as well loaf through the rest of it. I can’t get an A anyway. I’m a complete failure.”
Fortune-telling happens when an individual makes unreasonable predictions about the future.
- “I’m really interested in Kevin…but if I try to ask him out, I know I’m going to be too anxious and I’ll say something really stupid. Even if I don’t, he’ll definitely say no. Besides, he probably has a s/o already. There’s no way a guy like him isn’t taken.”
- “I know it’s only the first week of classes, but I just know that I’m going to fail this course. I know nothing about anatomy and I hear this course is ridiculously difficult.”
- “Sam asked me to go with her to a party but I’m definitely not going to have a good time. The food’s gonna suck, I’m going to be a nervous wreck, and everyone’s going to notice and laugh at me.”
This cognitive distortion occurs when a person assumes that other people are thinking negatively of them or that others have negative intentions.
- “Why did Paul just look over my shoulder when I’m talking to him? He must think I’m ridiculously boring. He must want to leave. Did he. Just. Yawn??? Wow, he thinks I’m as interesting as watching paint dry.”
- “I was sick for the last meeting. Allie just told me to check the meeting notes for my assigned task. Of course I did that already! She thinks I’m freeloading off of the group. She must have loved it when I wasn’t at the meeting. She thinks I’m stupid.”
- “Why did James not look too happy when we said hello today? He must think I’m a nuisance. Oh, I still owe him 5 bucks from a couple of days ago. He must think I’m mooching off of him. He definitely thinks I’m not worth talking to.”
Overgeneralizing happens when an individual draws all-encompassing conclusions from a few (e.g., one or two) events. It often includes absolute words like “never”, “always”, and phrases such as “everyone is…” or “the world is…”.
- “Cameron asked me to repeat my sentence. He never listens to me. No one listens to me, ever.”
- “I totally bombed that presentation because the slides didn’t show up properly. Things like this always happen to me. Things never go right in my life. The world is against me.”
- “I thought Rex was my friend – why did he just brush me off like that when we haven’t seen each other in ages? Everyone abandons me. I always get this kind of treatment from people.”
5. Low Frustration Tolerance
This cognitive distortion occurs when an individual assumes that when something is difficult to tolerate, it is completely intolerable, even if it is better for the long-term if you manage the discomfort and go through it.
- “I know we have 2 weeks until the big essay is due, but it’s too much of a hassle to start right now. I’ll do it later when I’m feeling up for it” and then he/she ends up doing the assignment the night before.
- “Our presentation is next Thursday, right? Let’s just wing it, honestly. I don’t feel like spending hours practicing this.”
- “I’m trying to work on my social anxiety by striking up conversation with someone I want to get to know better. I want to ask them out for a coffee but I’m too scared. It’s better just to not say anything.”
Labelling happens when an individual…labels themselves, others, events, or the world with oversimplified phrases.
- “I did horribly on my last essay……I’m such a failure.”
- “Wow, Amanda was late to the meeting? She obviously doesn’t care about other people’s time.”
- “Why is Neil constantly apologizing about everything? He’s such an attention seeker.”
7. Making Demands
This cognitive distortion occurs when a person thinks or believes statements containing words such as, “need”, “have to”, “must”, “ought”, etc. These become a problem when these thoughts and beliefs are too polarized or rigid.
- “I have to get over 90% on this test because I must be perfect – or no one will approve of me.”
- “Since I am considerate to other people, they definitely ought to be just as considerate to me.”
- “I know I haven’t been taking too much time for myself lately, but I’ve got to help everyone else with their work before I take a break from mine.”
8. Mental Filtering
Mental filtering happens when an individual only accepts information that fits their beliefs, further perpetuating these beliefs even with the existence of opposing information.
- “I believe I’m a failure. I missed that important point on my presentation last week, so it proves I’m a failure.” Meanwhile, during that week you went running every other day as per your exercise goals, earned a great mark on your test, and brought porridge over to a friend’s house since they were sick.
- “I believe that I’m lazy. I spent 2 more hours than I wanted to watching Netflix last night…proving I’m lazy.” At the same time, during the day, you finished an essay early and spent some time learning how to code from your friend in computer sciences.
- “I believe that my girlfriend’s eyes are wandering. She looked at another girl when we were walking through the mall together so she must be looking for someone better.” Meanwhile, your girlfriend spent several hours with you the previous day to comfort you after a thesis presentation where you received some pretty harsh feedback.
9. Disqualifying the Positive
Similar to the previous cognitive distortion, disqualifying the positive will perpetuate one’s rigid beliefs. A person will minimize a positive event to become a neutral or even a negative event.
- “I believe I’m a failure. I know I got a 95% on my last test, but anyone could ace that easy test. It doesn’t count.”
- “I believe that I’m not welcomed. I know that I was invited to a friend’s birthday party recently, but I know he just invited me because he pities me. He doesn’t actually want me there.”
- “I believe that I’m not growing as a person. I know I am building up some good habits, but that doesn’t mean I’m growing. I’m just procrastinating.”
Personalizing happens when an individual believes that events are related to them personally even when they may be described by other factors.
- “George looked like he was in a hurry to leave after I said hello. I must have done something bad to him to make him avoid me.”
- “Marissa cancelled our plans this week. She must have changed her mind because she doesn’t want to be seen in public with me.”
- “Our group got a low mark on our last presentation. It must be because I messed up that one sentence during my part.”
11. Emotional Reasoning
This cognitive distortion occurs when a person relies too heavily on their emotions as proof that something is true (when it is not).
- “I just woke up and I feel anxious. Why am I feeling anxious? There must be something I’m forgetting. Some reason why I’m anxious. Let’s think – what happened recently? There must be something that happened that’s making me anxious.”
- “My boyfriend John is spending a whole lot of time with Abi lately. I feel so uneasy. This is a sign! A sign that John is cheating on me! Otherwise I wouldn’t feel so suspicious of him!”
- “I’m feeling so empty and depressed…I must deserve to be depressed. I must have done something horrible to someone in this life and the karma is reflecting back on me and that’s why I’m depressed…”
Pushing for mental wellness
Now, after reading this, you may be thinking that cognitive distortions are… fairly common. In my experience simply talking with different people, I know this to be the case. To me, it is nonsensical that we have this great evidence-based literature about cognitive distortions and it is only accessed when they become a huge detriment to our lives. Treatment is important, but so is prevention. Learning to identify and redirect cognitive distortions before they build up is one poignant method of preventing or at the very least reducing the symptoms of mental illnesses.
Now, that is not to say that mental illness is purely psychological. There are also the biological and the environmental components. For every individual facing mental illness, there is a different degree to which each component plays a factor. It can be confusing, but in the end, learning ways to improve your control over your own thoughts will help you to build resiliency. I don’t expect for any of you (or even myself) to walk out of this knowing cognitive distortions in and out. It will take time and practice to identify them, let alone try to redirect them. But I hope that throughout the whole process, you will embrace your imperfections and take pride in every little step toward improving your mental health.
Remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),
P.S. A book I really recommend that goes through these cognitive distortions in a clear manner and offers tips on how to redirect these thoughts is “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies“.
Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.
Branch, R., & Willson, R. (2010). Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies, 2e. John Wiley & Sons.
Burns, D. D. (2012). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.