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Cognitive Distortion and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Table of Contents

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) combines cognitive and behavioral therapeutic approaches. It is one of the most common and widely used forms of psychotherapy. The basic principle behind this form of therapy is the interconnectedness of how we think, feel, and behave and the influence these factors have on our well-being.


Cognitive therapy helps clients identify and alter negative thoughts, expectations, attitudes, and beliefs. Often, the degree of importance one attaches to false and distressing beliefs can cause problems in life. Based on the premise that behavior is learned and can be unlearned, behavioral therapy aims to guide clients to unlearn harmful behaviors.


When these two forms of therapy are combined in CBT, the goal is to modify unhelpful thought patterns to improve moods and behaviors.


What Is Cognitive Distortion?


The American Psychological Association defines cognitive distortion as faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief. The most common feeling associated with cognitive distortion is negativity. For some people, distorted thinking is momentary and passes. For example, a friend might not say hello to you when they pass, so you are momentarily concerned that you did something wrong. This feeling passes for some, replaced by neutral thinking, such as the realization that the friend might be stressed, and you might want to check in with them later. For others, distorted thinking can linger and lead to problematic behavior.


For those who cannot help but hold onto these instances of distorted thinking, cognitive distortions can become their pattern of thinking. This thinking can drastically interfere with relationships and other aspects of people’s lives. Sometimes, cognitive distortion can contribute to severe and chronic anxiety or depression. It can also lead to alcohol and drug abuse.


Types of Cognitive Distortion


All-or-Nothing Thinking


All-or-nothing thinking is a type of thinking that involves viewing situations in absolute terms. Everything is black or white, success or failure, etc. The issue with this type of thinking is that it leaves out any room for working between two extremes. This can significantly impair the ability to stick to goals and feel motivated or confident.


At Granite Recovery Centers, we use CBT to overcome this type of cognitive distortion by recognizing that success and progress are not all-or-nothing. Addressing this behavior and replacing the thoughts with more forgiveness and flexibility allows one to feel better about their progress in life.




Overgeneralization refers to establishing a rule based on a single event or coincidence. The assumption is that all future events will play out in a particular manner based on the outcome of a single occurrence.


This thinking does not account for situational differences, chance, or luck. This can have many consequences on how people think and act and can be associated with certain anxiety disorders.


In cognitive behavioral therapy, the goal is to recognize when overgeneralization occurs and to replace it with the understanding that a single event does not decide all future outcomes.


Mental Filtering


Mental filtering is the reverse of overgeneralization. With mental filtering, one small event is focused on while everything else is blocked out. One example would be focusing on a singular adverse event in a relationship while blocking any positive aspects.


This thinking can lead to many issues, such as poor self-esteem, anxiety, and addiction. It can even lead to suicidal thinking. In cognitive behavioral therapy, we try to help reestablish a more well-rounded view of situations.


Discounting the Positive


Discounting the positive means completely discrediting the good things in your life. It is an active rejection of positivity. Any positive events are seen as flukes or anomalies and are not expected to reoccur.


This type of thinking undermines faith in one’s abilities. By discounting the positive, there is no faith in overcoming challenges when they arise.


CBT works to unlearn this feeling of helplessness.


Emotional Reasoning


Emotional reasoning is the judgment of oneself based on emotions. It is an assumption that just because a negative emotion is being experienced, it is a definitive reflection of reality. For example, if you feel guilty about a situation, you may conclude that it is because you are a terrible person.


This sort of thinking can lead to feelings of anxiety or depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help recognize that the feelings that come with emotional reasoning are not the facts of life.




Magnification is the over-exaggeration of shortcomings or a problem’s importance while minimizing the importance of reputable attributes.


With this type of thinking, one tends to see it as proof of one’s shortcomings when there is a negative occurrence but does not allow positive events to have much of an impact.


This can affect behavior by contributing to fear, anxiety, and panic since it magnifies insignificant problems.


Cognitive behavioral therapy aims to demagnify and balance out how one views situations.




Catastrophizing is a way of thinking that can involve preemptively thinking the absolute worst outcome will come out of a situation. This cognitive distortion can cause normal worry to escalate quickly into outright panic.


This behavior can lead to extreme anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.


Mind Reading


Mind reading is a type of cognitive distortion that involves the belief that someone will react a certain way or think a certain way when this is rarely the case. It can also include predicting how events will unfold in a particular manner, which can be done to avoid a difficult situation.




Labeling involves judging yourself or another person based on a single behavior and not being willing to see the whole picture. This can put you or others in a restrictive box without room for perspective growth.


This behavior can lead to everything from shame to depression, and cognitive behavioral therapy works to help have a more holistic view of oneself and others.


Personalization and Blame


Personalization and blame involve entirely blaming yourself or others for a situation when there are, in fact, a variety of uncontrollable factors involved.


This cognitive distortion can lead to feelings of inadequacy, shame, and guilt. Feelings of resentment can also occur if you blame others without acknowledging your role in a situation.


‘Should’ Statements


“Should” statements involve thinking you “should” or “must” do certain things.


This type of cognitive distortion can emphasize unrealistic standards and lead to self-defeat. This, in turn, can lead to panic, depression, and anxiety. It is also possible for these feelings to lead to alcohol and substance abuse.


CBT to Treat Drug and Alcohol Abuse


Evidence supports CBT’s effectiveness in treating substance use disorders (SUDs). Cognitive behavioral therapy to treat drug and alcohol abuse can involve various behavioral treatments, including managing cognitive distortions and distorted thinking. Behavioral therapies may consist of traditional cognitive behavioral interventions, motivational barriers to improvement, and targeting operant learning processes.


To effectively overcome substance use disorder, psychological tools are necessary. Thankfully, cognitive behavioral therapy can provide some of these tools. Skills gained from successful cognitive behavioral therapy may include risk-reducing behavioral strategies and the ability to employ methods for responding effectively to dysfunctional beliefs.


A significant benefit that CBT brings to treatment is its emphasis on maintenance over the long term. Since abusers of drugs and alcohol in recovery can be subject to relapse, cognitive behavioral therapists teach clients new attitudes and skills that can serve them well throughout their life. These new attitudes and skills can help clients move forward with long-term success.


Managing Withdrawal


Even with the success that can come with utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy to offset distorted thinking and substance use disorders, there is no getting around the fact that going through withdrawal from substance dependence can be challenging. Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe and vary depending on the type of substance, the age and physical condition of the client, and the method used to manage the withdrawal process. Withdrawal symptoms can include:


  • Hot/cold flashes
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Tremors


Thankfully, these symptoms are only temporary; they will eventually subside. You should also know you do not have to go through this process alone. It is, in fact, highly recommended that you go through this process in a safe and secure environment, such as a hospital or detox facility.


Getting Help


If you are having trouble with substance abuse, our team at Granite Recovery Centers can help you through the detox process, manage withdrawal symptoms, and put you on the road to recovery. Cognitive behavioral therapy is just one aspect of our evidence-based model of care that can help you move past the cognitive distortions impairing your life and influencing your substance abuse. You are not alone; with help, you can be on your way to brighter days ahead.