Getting Out of Thinking Traps

Learn About Cognitive Distortions and How to Challenge Them
animated person sitting on the ground with fuzziness squiggles over their head

It’s easy to fall into negative thinking patterns and spend time bullying yourself, dwelling on the past, or worrying about the future. It’s part of how we’re wired – the human brain reacts more intensely to negative events than to positive ones and is more likely to remember insults than praise. During tough times, negative thoughts are especially likely to spiral out of control.

One study found that 85% of what we worry about never happens at all, and in the 15% of times where worries came true, 79% of people handled the difficulty better than expected or learned a valuable lesson.

When these thoughts make something out to be worse in your head than it is in reality, they are called cognitive distortions.

Common Cognitive Distortions


Making a broad statement based off one situation or piece of evidence.


Blaming yourself for events beyond your control; taking things personally when they aren’t actually connected to you.


Focusing on the negative details of a situation while ignoring the positive.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

Only seeing the extremes of a situation.


Blowing things out of proportion; dwelling on the worst possible outcomes.

Jumping to Conclusions

Judging or deciding something without all the facts.

Emotional Reasoning

Thinking that however you feel is fully and unarguably true.
Discounting the Positive: Explaining all positives away as luck or coincidence.

“Should” Statements

Making yourself feel guilty by pointing out what you should or shouldn’t be doing, feeling, or thinking.

4 Tips for Challenging Negative Thoughts


Think of a different way to view the situation. If your negative thought is “I can’t do anything right,” a kinder way to reframe it is, “I messed up, but nobody’s perfect,” or a more constructive thought is “I messed up, but now I know to prepare more for next time.” It can be hard to do this when you’re feeling down on yourself, so ask yourself what you’d tell your best friend if they were saying those things about themselves.

Prove yourself wrong

The things you do impact how you feel – what actions can you take to combat your negative thoughts? For instance, if you’re telling yourself you aren’t smart because you don’t understand how the stock market works, learn more about a subject you understand and enjoy, like history. If you feel like no one cares about you, call a friend. Give yourself evidence that these thoughts aren’t entirely true.

Counter negative thoughts with positive ones

When you catch your inner dialogue being mean to you, make yourself say something nice to balance it out. This may feel cheesy at first and self-love can be hard, so don’t give up if it feels awkward in the beginning. Name things you love, like, or even just don’t hate about yourself – we all have to start somewhere!

Remember: Thoughts aren’t facts

Your thoughts and feelings are valid, but they aren’t always reality. You might feel ugly, but that doesn’t mean you are. Often times we can be our own worst enemies – other people are seeing us in a much nicer light than how we see ourselves.

This information was provided by Mental Health America as part of its Tools 2 Thrive initiative. Download the worksheet on Dealing with the Worst-Case Scenario (PDF)