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Feeling Upset? Check for Distorted Thinking

cognitive therapyThe way you think about things can affect the way you feel. That’s a basic premise of cognitive therapy. Here’s an example. One morning you get to work and realize that you left your iPad at home. You have these thoughts: “Oh no, I forgot my iPad. I’ll never be able to get any work done today. I don’t even have my calendar. I know I have some appointments but I don’t remember when. This is terrible. If my boss finds out about this, he might fire me.”

Well, after that thought you might be pretty anxious.

On the other hand, what if you have these thoughts? “Oh no, I forgot my iPad. What an idiot I am. How can I be so stupid? I should have checked to see that I had everything before I left. Why do I always have to be so stupid?”

Having those thoughts might lead to feeling pretty depressed.

Same situation but different thoughts: “Oh no, I forgot my iPad. Oh well, I’ll survive and if it’s a big deal I can always check with the people I work with to find out what’s scheduled. Or I can call home and get my wife to read me my schedule.”

Those thoughts would likely keep you calm.

Distorted thinking can be recognized and replaced with more realistic thinking. The first task is to recognize the distortions. In the above examples, there are some common thinking errors such as:

  • Awfulizing: this distortion involves making a mountain out of a molehill. In other words, thinking that a situation is far worse than it really is.
  • Negative predicting: people who use this distortion predict horrible events that haven’t and may never happen.
  • Mind reading: this involves believing that people are thinking certain (usually negative) thoughts without checking out the truth.
  • Self-tagging: labels are useful on food items in the grocery store; they are less useful when applied to a person. Self-tagging involves calling yourself negative names like stupid, idiot, ugly, or so on.
  • Shoulding: I should have known better or I should have done something differently. These statements are not really useful and often involve self-scolding.

If you find yourself feeling upset about something, stand back and take a look at how you are interpreting or thinking about what happened. If you can come up with a more reasonable thought, you just might find yourself calming down.

Stressed woman photo available from Shutterstock

Feeling Upset? Check for Distorted Thinking

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D.

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of adults and children with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as personality disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and learning disorders. Dr. Smith is a widely published author of articles and books to the profession and the public, including: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2E), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, and Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be? Her website is:

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APA Reference
Smith, L. (2012). Feeling Upset? Check for Distorted Thinking. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Jan 2012
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