reduce stress

10 Cognitive Distortions that are Stressing You Out and Sapping Your Productivity

The sculpture, Parable with a Skull, by Jaroslav Róna features a giant skull resting atop a person’s back weighed down on their hands and knees, and was inspired by the works of Franz Kafka, whose characters are fraught with this very depiction of over-thinking and psychological torment. It is a stark example of what distorted thoughts can do to our minds and bodies, but is an essential reminder, nonetheless:  we need to truly learn to master our own minds, so that unruly thinking does not become our master.

According to cognitive-behavioral theory, it is not external experiences that contribute to our stress, but rather our thoughts and feelings. If you can become more aware of these underlying, negative thoughts, and replace them with more positive and realistic ones, you’ll be well on your way to living a happier and more productive life, at home, work, and at play.

Here’s a list of ten cognitive distortions that may be weighing you down, and some helpful examples of “counter” statements you can use to get you in a far healthier state of mind:

1. All of Nothing Thinking:  Seeing things in black and white; that if one thing goes wrong you think you are a total failure.

Counter Statement:  “This is just one event that didn’t go the way I planned, but it doesn’t mean I’m not a successful person.”

2. Overgeneralization:  When something bad happens, you overgeneralize and think that something bad is always happening to you, when in fact, it isn’t.

Counter Statement:  “It seems the whole world is against me sometimes, but I know that’s really not true; many good things do come my way.”

3. Mental Filter:  You only see the negative in a situation and ignore the positive.

Counter Statement:  “My boss didn’t like my marketing plan, but she really loved my choice of graphic design.”

4. Disqualifying the Positive:  Finding a reason to not accept positive feedback.

Counter Statement:  “It made me feel good when my co-worker said I did a great job on my presentation. I know she meant it.”

5. Jumping to Conclusions:  When you make a negative interpretation and conclusion even though there are no definite facts for it.

Counter Statement:  “This traffic looks pretty bad, but I know I’ll make it home eventually.”

6. Catastrophizing:  You exaggerate the importance of things and they become way beyond their reality.

Counter Statement:  “My boss didn’t get back to me when he said he would, but I’m sure he’s just busy. I can check in with him again at another time.”

7. Emotional Reasoning:  This is when you assume that your negative emotions reflect the way things really are.

Counter Statement:  “I might feel a little undervalued, but when I take a step back I do see that my hard work is acknowledged.”

8. Should Statements:  When you try to motivate yourself by having too many “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” about how you should act, or how the world should be.

Counter Statement:  “It’s healthy for me to accept some things the way they are.”

9. Labeling:  Giving yourself or others a definitive label that can not be an accurate description.

Counter Statement:  “I know it’s not helpful to say that I’m weak or a failure. I’m a good person and I can grow, learn, and improve myself.”

10. Personalization:  When you see yourself as personally responsible for an outside event; basically, you confuse influence with control.

Counter Statement:  “The downturn has affected the economy in unforeseen ways, but I’m doing well at steering my business in the right direction.”

What cognitive distortions do you find yourself saying? What are some of your own suggestions to counteract them, or remind yourself to think more positively?

Author of The Accomplishing More With Less Workbook, Pierre Khawand is the Founder and CEO of People-OnTheGo, a San Francisco-based company offering in-person and online training in the areas of time management, productivity, technology, wellness, and more to individuals and corporations. The information in this article is based on the work of Dr. Alicia R. Maher, who created People-OnTheGo’s Stress Management workshop. Please visit www.people-onthego.com/webinars for information on upcoming webinars, and much more.

  • Jeffrey James

    This is a great list. It’s so important to have a positive mindset if you ever want to be effective or successful.

  • Durai amuthan

    pearl of wisdom..

  • suman

    so reall like the writer has mentioned CBT..(cognitive behaviour therapy).. you can defeat the world with the thought in your mind..well the problem is how not to forget it??

  • dfjslkdjf

    You realize it’s only a “distortion” if it’s not true, right? Why does everyone assume that anything that makes you feel bad could never ever possibly be true?

    • Bastion

      By handling these thoughts as distortions, individuals are better able to cut through the nonsense that comes after a fail and get back on track with the relevant problem-solving that will improve the product.

      Pardon my presumption, but do you mean to suggest that only the best, most successful businesses or individuals would be unable to generate these kinds of conditions? You said “it’s only a distortion if it isn’t true” – the issue isn’t whether or not the actual Thing You’re Working On is fundamentally flawed; the goal is to give less attention to those things which preclude one from making progress. Just look at the first couple of points – All or Nothing thinking would genuinely preclude nearly 99% of all goods and services from ever launching, ever. A Mental Filter which only allows in negativity will only count up the cons and never the pros of any given situation. Discounting the Positive means denying all the fruits of your labor. And so on. These things can destroy projects before they get off the ground.

      The fact of the matter is, whether or not you encounter these negative thoughts as the result of facts or fiction is irrelevant. It is the method in which you handle them afterwards that is paramount. Accepting any of the above so-called distortions as immutable facts doesn’t allow you or your project to grow.

  • shubham

    my mind doesnt allow me from stepping ahead and i m not able to think positive..if i think good and positive the same moment negative thought comes..i know m powerfull but my thinking power is negative one..therefore i take long time in performing some work..please help me that i may get focused in my work and control my brain quickly…i have less time left with me….

    • http://everydayshaila.blogspot.com/ Shaila

      I used to be like that, but I this way of thinking really does work. It takes lots of practice and you have to be patient with yourself that sometimes you will slip up into negative thinking.

  • lizguthridge

    Super article! Reappraising, that is turning thoughts around or looking at issues from another perspective, takes some practice. Yet when you can do it, it’s super powerful and so valuable to better thinking. Sometimes, coaches and others are helpful to guide someone to make reappraisal a habit.

  • http://everydayshaila.blogspot.com/ Shaila

    CBT has worked wonders for me. I no longer have panic attacks and am much more relaxed.

  • Tim

    I think that it is All or Nothing Thinking, not All of Nothing Thinking.