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Cognitive Distortions and Addiction

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Many mental healthcare experts believe how an individual thinks affects how they use alcohol and act. Negative beliefs and thoughts that come automatically are referred to as cognitive distortions.


Anyone can experience cognitive distortions to some extent. However, mental health professionals believe negative thoughts generate unwanted or harmful behaviors and feelings. This article looks at the types of cognitive distortions and how these distortions are related to alcohol addiction.


What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions, also known as automatic negative thoughts or thinking errors, refer to deep-seated negative beliefs or ideas about the world, yourself, and others. These thoughts determine how you relate to others. They also affect how you act in different situations. These thoughts can become so rooted in your mind that you may hear them as a voice in your head.


The idea of cognitive distortions is rooted in psychologists’ cognitive model, which suggests that your thoughts affect your feelings, which, in turn, affect your actions. Experts believe that cognitive distortions have a role in your mental health, compulsive patterns of behavior, and how you use alcohol.


You will not realize that your thoughts are inaccurate when suffering from cognitive distortion. If left unchecked, these distorted thoughts will become persistent and begin to feel real. Limiting your ability to control your actions means you won’t even be able to stop substance use.


Types of Cognitive Distortions and How They Relate to Alcohol Addiction

Cognitive theorists believe alcohol addiction comes from negative feelings resulting from negative thinking. Cognitive distortions about recovery, sobriety, or alcohol can lead to the misuse of alcohol. Misusing alcohol is an effort to deal with unpleasant thoughts about events or situations that result in undesirable emotions. These two things may happen simultaneously and impact how you relate to alcohol.


While everyone is unique and has individualized cognitive distortions and thought patterns, the ten common cognitive distortions that can dictate how people relate to alcohol include the following.



When mindreading, you will jump to conclusions without knowing what others think or feel. You will believe that you already know their thoughts.


While it’s impossible to know other people’s thoughts, mindreading can make you develop a desire to misuse alcohol. For example, when hanging out with friends, you might believe that not drinking with them will make everyone think you are strange.


You might think that no one would want to hang out with you when you are sober or that people only think it is fun to be with you when you are drunk. Mindreading is also a barrier to seeking help for your drinking problem. For example, you might get concerned about what people will think about you if you begin rehab.


You may also worry that your friends will think you’re arrogant if you don’t drink or hang out with them. With these thoughts, you will start or continue drinking to please your friends and have a sense of belonging.



Catastrophizing is when you always imagine the worst. This disorder causes you to expect a tragedy or disaster to the point where you become anxious or panicked. You can catastrophize any life aspect. And if you have a recurring pattern of catastrophizing, it can be one of the main factors contributing to your addiction and stopping you from seeking help.


For example, if you had promised yourself never to drink again but did drink, you might think you can’t control your drinking. You might start thinking about how even rehab won’t help you. You will create the worst scenarios based on a single drink.


Such thoughts lead to panic and may make you give up on seeking medical help, instead choosing to continue self-destructive behaviors. In addition, the negativity and stress from catastrophizing can affect your health and prevent you from taking the first step in your recovery process.


All-or-Nothing Thinking

This cognitive distortion is also referred to as polarized thinking. This condition will make you seek perfection. You will think that any imperfect thing or situation is a complete failure.


With this kind of thinking, you can easily give up on any attempt at recovery because you will ignore the small successes and focus more on failures or setbacks. For example, if you went to rehab but relapsed, you may believe no addiction treatment will help you.


You will reason that since you lapsed, there is no need to try again. With polarized thinking, a small mistake will make you throw the whole thing away.


Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is where your beliefs are based on emotions rather than facts. Emotional reasoning blurs logical reasoning. Cognitive distortion can lead to severe alcohol misuse and hinder recovery and treatment. For example, this cognitive distortion can make you think you look better in social settings when drinking. It can also make you believe that you can’t make yourself want to stop drinking, even though you know that alcohol use harms your health.



Labeling is a case where you permanently label things, events, yourself, or others after a distressing experience or event, making it hard for you to view these objects differently. Labeling thoughts will make you attach your unfortunate experiences to these events and use these experiences as your identity. For example, if you had a drink after promising never to drink, you could label yourself a failure and use failure as your identity.


You might label your friends as toxic if they brought drinks to a party while you were in recovery. Labeling will make it hard to view yourself or others positively. It also prevents you from having a new perspective on objects, others, yourself, and past events.


Mental Filtering

When you filter issues mentally, you focus more on the negative and discard the positive ones. You may also dismiss anything that is outside your set of beliefs. For example, if you promised not to drink for 30 days and managed to stay dry for 29 days, you would focus more on the one day you got drunk and never think about the 29 successful days.


In this case, you will not focus on your valid victory but start blaming yourself for the one day you lapsed. This distortion is another cause of anxiety and may affect your thinking about situations.



Overgeneralization means using one event as a rule to define the outcome of other similar or dissimilar events or situations. This is a damaging disposition because it will make you believe you can never win or are destined to lose. For example, if you relapse once, you may think your future attempts will fail.


You might also think that since you had a drink at a wedding, you will likely drink at any other weddings you attend. Such thoughts can make you stop attending weddings or feel like you want a drink whenever you attend any other social gathering.



Personalization is when you assume you are to blame for everything that happens to you and others. For example, when a family member or friend is in a bad mood, you may assume you are the one at fault or that they are angry at you.


Internalizing external events like this may weigh negatively on you as you try to tackle the underlying causes of your addiction. While the decisions you make about alcohol use are within your control once you are in treatment, you must remember that you are not necessarily responsible for every event that led to your alcoholism.


Should Statements

When you are obsessed with the thoughts that people should act in a certain way, how you should behave differently, or how things should be different from what they are, it means you are consumed with the criticism of things and people around you, your circumstances, and yourself. Such thoughts breed guilt and will make it difficult for you to make changes or feel satisfied with your recovery progress.



When you minimize something, you make it appear less important than it is. For example, you may know that alcohol is causing your work-related problems but assume that the issues aren’t as bad as people think. For instance, if you’ve missed the submission deadline for a work project, you may believe it is ok because you eventually submitted it, not considering any negative impact that the late submission may have caused. This can also happen when you deliberately miss crucial steps necessary for your recovery.


Identifying and Changing Your Cognitive Distortions

You can easily identify the cognitive distortions interfering with your recovery. Once you identify them, the next step is getting specialists’ help.


Though cognitive distortions are automatic thought patterns, you can be taught to change your thinking. One effective way of doing so is through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy is the gold-standard addiction treatment used in almost all rehab facilities.


CBT aims to change the individual’s negative emotions and behavior by changing their thought pattern. When in a rehab facility, a therapist will help you identify and change the cognitive distortions contributing to your alcohol misuse. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an individualized and goal-oriented treatment method for substance use disorder (SUD). The treatment typically involves the following:


  • Learning, Understanding, and Practicing Coping Skills
  • Examining Alcohol-Related Thought Processes
  • Thought Training
  • Functional Analysis


CBT can also treat other mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and co-occurring SUD. It can be used in group and individual therapy sessions.


Treating Cognitive Distortions with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive distortion is common among recovering alcoholics. It damages the addict’s well-being and makes it hard to seek professional help. Therefore, it is crucial to eliminate negative thought patterns through CBT. The benefits of CBT include the following.



This therapy is flexible because your therapist will design a program that suits your unique needs.


Low-Risk Setting

CBT sessions you attend will not affect you negatively. The therapist will also deal with all your underlying mental health problems.


Coping Skills

You will learn skills to recognize and eliminate negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. You will also learn skills for ongoing recovery to prevent relapse.


Emotional Management

Your therapist will teach you emotion-management skills to overcome emotion-related cognitive distortions.


Support Network

The building block of CBT is establishing a support network. During and after treatment, you will work to build a support network where you can help one another.


Rebuilding Self-Esteem

Through CBT, you will regain and rebuild your lost self-esteem. This is important for your recovery process. Your therapist will constantly engage you in activities that reinforce your self-worth.


Good alcohol treatment facilities such as Granite Recovery Centers provide holistic treatments for your mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. As you undergo CBT, your therapist or healthcare provider may prescribe medications to help manage your withdrawal symptoms.


You will also be required to participate in a 12-step program where you can work with other addicts. Whatever you do, remember that your recovery depends on your commitment and dedication to the program and how you cooperate with your therapist.