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Cognitive Distortions in Generalized Anxiety Disorder

What are they and how can they be changed?

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Updated April 09, 2014

Cognitive distortions are systematic ways that people twist and distort information from the environment. These biases often reinforce negative thought patterns and can lead to increased anxiety and difficulty managing everyday stress. Most people use at least of few of these regularly, and they are a chief focus of cognitive-behavioral therapy for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The following is a list of the original distortions with an example related to GAD. Ideally, one could use this list as a way to identify his/her own cognitive distortions, and challenge them by considering more realistic and rational information.

Catastrophizing: taking an event you are concerned about and blowing it out of proportion to the point of becoming fearful. Example: Believing that if you fail a quiz then the teacher will completely lose respect for you, that you will not graduate from college, that you will therefore never get a well-paying job, and will ultimately end up unhappy and dissatisfied with life.

Arbitrary Inference: making a judgment with no supporting information. Example: Believing that someone does not like you without any actual information to support that belief.

Personalization: when a person attributes an external event to himself when there is actually no causal relationship. Example: If a checkout clerk is rude to you and you believe that you must have done something to cause it, when there is a more plausible explanation for the person’s behavior.

Selective Abstraction: when a person makes a judgment based on some information but disregards other information. Example: Someone attends a party and afterward focuses on the one awkward look directed her way and ignores the hours of smiles.

Overgeneralization: making a board rule based on a few limited occurrences. Example: Believing that if one public speaking event went badly that all of them will.

Dichotomous Thinking: categorizing things into one of two extremes. Example: Believing that people are either excellent in social situations or terrible, without recognizing the large gray area in-between.

Labeling: attaching a label to yourself after a negative experience Example: Feeling awkward at a party leads to the conclusion: “I’m an awkward person”.

Source: Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. Guilford Press.
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