Psychology Tools: Identifying Cognitive Distortions
January 28, 2014

The term Cognitive Distortion comes from the theory of cognitive-behavioral therapy – one of the more widely studied and effective forms of talk therapy. A cognitive distortion refers to a biased and/or irrational way of looking at things. These distortions, while common, often lead to and/or exacerbate negative emotional and behavioral states.

Identifying cognitive distortions in a systematic manner can help you start to diminish their power and is an important step in the process of replacing them with more rational thoughts.

The purpose of the “Identifying Cognitive Distortions” exercise is twofold.  First, it’s designed to help you become more aware of the link between thoughts and feelings.  The relationship between thoughts, feelings and behavior is complex. However, it’s clear that biased thoughts can lead to problematic emotions and actions.

The second purpose of the exercise is to help you start making the distinction between irrational thoughts (i.e., cognitive distortions) and rational perspectives. Once you start to identify the cognitive distortions, you can choose to let go of them, rather than “feeding” or reinforcing them.  This paves the way for you to start cultivating and strengthening a more rational and balanced perspective about yourself and the world around you.


1.)   Read “What are Cognitive Distortions?”

2.) Complete this worksheet: “Identifying_Cognitive_Distortions” (click link for download of PDF file).

As noted on the worksheet, there are three columns to track: feelings, thoughts and cognitive distortions.  When doing this exercise, it can be helpful to first identify a difficult emotion, like anxiety, irritability, sadness, or shame.  Write that in the first column labeled “Feelings.”  You can also write down any noteworthy physical sensations, like muscular tension or burning, as uncomfortable somatic states can be tied to problematic thought patterns as well (mind-body connection).

Once you’ve identified what you’re feeling, then notice what thoughts are running through your mind as you experience those emotions or physical sensations.  This helps you start to get a clearer idea of the connection between thoughts and feelings.  (The emphasis here is on emotional feelings, but as noted above, it’s important to be aware of physical sensations as well, recognizing, of course, that physical discomfort is not always caused by psychological factors.)

The last step is to analyze your thoughts for any cognitive distortions.  If you notice one, write it down.  If not, then great – that just means that your perspective is rational and you are experiencing a normal emotional response to something difficult.  Keep in mind that the goal here isn’t to eradicate emotions. That’s impossible, because having an emotional life is part of being human.  However, it is good to weaken the production of irrational thoughts and conversely, strengthen one’s relationship to more rational thoughts and perspectives.  This tends to lead to greater feelings of happiness and well-being, even under difficult circumstances.

Note: Try to spend 5-10 minutes each day working on this exercise for at least one week.  As with many cognitive-behavioral exercises, it’s important that you actually write out the information. Simply thinking about it in your mind is often (but not always) insufficient to make changes.  Putting the information down on paper provides more perspective and clarity.

  1. I was in cognitive behavioral therapy for years to treat agoraphobia and panic disorder. Learning these thought distortions made a HUGE difference in my life. Not because it made me stop having panic attacks but because I was finally armed with tools to talk myself down, to confront myself with rationality. Sometimes I would get so into the argument against my irrational thoughts that I would forget completely that I was panicking and instead end up debating the thoughts on which my argument was based. Today I am free of PD and agoraphobia and often find myself sharing these distortions in thinking with friends or clients who are experiencing circumstances that could only be improved by changing their mindset. It’s a beautiful thing, awareness.

    • Thank you for sharing, Meghan. That’s great that you were able to use this tool so successfully, and that you later got to a point of being free of panic and agoraphobia. Nice work!

      The process you described – about arguing with your irrational thoughts to the point that you forgot about the panic – is an example of how our minds sometimes need help “changing the channel.” Working with cognitive distortions is a great way of doing this – helping our minds get out of a rut that is causing suffering.

      Out of curiosity, when you first learned about cognitive distortions did you work with them by writing them down? Most people find that helpful, particularly in the beginning, but it can be hard to find the time, patience, etc. to do so.

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