By Kate Kerpez

Depression can have a number of causes, one of which is unhealthy thought patterns. In his landmark 1980 book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, psychiatrist David Burns identifies many cognitive distortions that can increase the likelihood of depression. Cognitive distortions are unhealthy ways of thinking, and in this article some of these distortions are reviewed.

Overgeneralization is the tendency to apply the results of one situation to many other situations that could have different results. For example, if you failed one test, it would be an overgeneralization to then say, “I will fail all of my future tests.” Another cognitive distortion is jumping to conclusions. This distortion occurs when a person assumes to know the end result of a situation, even though there is no way to be completely certain of that end result. A person who is about to enter a room full of strangers may jump to the conclusion before entering the room that he or she will be disliked, without knowing the reality. Catastrophizing refers to the tendency to focus on all of the ways a situation could end in catastrophe, even if they are not realistic. A person who is catastrophizing will continuously ask themselves, “What if this situation goes wrong?” One more distortion is developing an external locus of control. Our locus of control is where we believe control of a situation lies, and when we have an external locus of control we believe that outside forces control our fate. For instance, we may blame others for our failures. An external locus of control leads to feelings of helplessness.
The key to dispelling unhealthy patterns of thought such as these is by developing and replacing them with healthy thought patterns. Fortunately, Burns identifies some ways to dispel cognitive distortions. First of all, it is important to accurately identify the cognitive distortion that you are experiencing. Which of the above distortions most closely matches your thoughts? Once you have identified the type of distortions we typically experience, it becomes easier to ward off those distortions to think in a more realistic manner. When experiencing negative thoughts, it can be helpful to monitor the way we talk to ourselves. Sometimes, we speak to ourselves less kindly than we would speak to a friend. We might call ourselves “stupid” when we would not say such things to a friend. Practicing kind “self-talk” can improve your psychological health. Another method of dispelling cognitive distortions is by removing ourselves from our emotions and looking at just the objective evidence. It can help to make a list of the reasons for your thoughts. It can also help to make a list of your successes, talents and good attributes.
Seeking outside opinions is a good way to put our thoughts into context. We might have trouble thinking realistically about a situation because of our emotions. Family and friends can offer good advice when we are uncertain. These are just a few of the distortions and their fixes. The methods of replacing cognitive distortions are helpful for thinking in a calm, reasoned, and positive way. Distortions, on the other hand, can lead to depression and feelings of helplessness. By stepping back and reevaluating our thoughts, we can learn to control them.


  • Grohol, J. M. (2013, Jul 25). 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. Retrieved from

  • Grohol, J. M. (2013, Jan 30). Fixing Cognitive Distortions. Retrieved from