Got Anxiety? Cognitive distortions – mapping our emotions (part 2 of 4) |

Got Anxiety? Cognitive distortions – mapping our emotions (part 2 of 4)

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D.
Mary B. Barmann, MFT

Editor’s note

This is the second in a 4-part series from the Barmanns about Cognitive Errors. Click here to read part one.

Three people go for a walk alone in the woods, enjoying the beautiful sights of the Tahoe Basin. Person #1 is typically depressed, and has a difficult time enjoying nearly any activity.

During the walk, she accidently steps in a “mess” a dog has left behind. She then says to herself, “Story of my life. I just got s*** on again. I can’t do anything right.”

Person #2 has an anxiety condition. On his walk, he also steps in dog mess. Scheduled to be at work within the next hour, he rushes home to change shoes, but continues to worry that others at work will somehow be able to identify a bad odor, concluding he did not shower before work; thus evaluating him in a negative manner.

Person #3 rarely experiences negative mood states on a consistent basis. He too steps in dog mess on his walk, and says to himself, “Thank God it wasn’t a St. Bernard. This is a great excuse for me to buy those new pair of shoes I’ve been wanting for so long.”


Within the field of cognitive therapy, it is well understood that our emotions are rarely the direct result of events we encounter, although it may often seem that way.

Instead, our emotional reactions are typically due to our INTERPRETATION of the event we just experienced. Our immediate interpretation following the experience of an unpleasant event is typically referred to as our “automatic thoughts,” since they tend to surface within milliseconds.

These automatic thoughts, or cognitions, have their origin in a deeper level of thinking, known as our “core beliefs” — how we view ourselves, others and the world in which we live. Certain core beliefs are associated with specific types of automatic thoughts.

For example, an individual with a core belief related to “fairness,” will often find himself interpreting negative life events (e.g., not getting the job he wanted so badly) as being unfair, resulting in the emotion of anger.


When our automatic thoughts (interpretations/explanations) of life events are inaccurate, they are referred to as “cognitive errors/distortions.”

Once a person consistently misattributes the meaning he or she assigns to situational events that bear a similarity to one another, the individual begins to form a belief system, or a “biased” pattern of thinking, which then evolves into one’s COGNITIVE RESPONSE PATTERN; a typical way of interpreting day-to-day life events, eventually culminating in the formation of negative mood states, such as anxiety and depression.


Anxiety has a way of tricking us into believing our irrational thought patterns, followed by behaving in ways we subsequently regret.

Research indicates there exist specific types of cognitive distortions which are directly associated with the development of anger, depression and anxiety.

The following represent three distortions, and their corresponding emotional impact, to help illustrate this point:


Listen carefully to your self-statements during times when you did not obtain something you wanted (e.g., a job).

Count how many times the word “should” appeared in your internal dialogue. Examples might include: “I should have been the one chosen for that job”; “They should have called more than just one of my references”; or “I should have had the opportunity to give a formal presentation, thus allowing me to showcase my skills.”

We frequently tell people in our private practice, “You need to stop ‘shouldding’ on yourself! It’s getting you nowhere.”

Emotional Response: ANGER


Oftentimes people display the tendency to reject positive life experiences or complements from others, insisting that they simply do not count, for one reason or another.

This type of response pattern only serves to maintain a negative belief system that is inconsistent with the “real you,” your true experiences, or your actual accomplishments.

When given a compliment, the person finds a way to discount it, stating, “Oh, it was nothing. If I was successful at it, that means anyone else could have done the same thing.”

Emotional Response: DEPRESSION


Although one of the most common cognitive distortions, it is also perhaps the least understood.

This manner of thinking involves believing that the emotion the person is currently experiencing, reflects the reality of the situation.

The person may think, “If I’m feeling threatened that my husband may be cheating on me, then certainly he must be, or why would I be feeling this way?”

Or, “I’m feeling scared being in this situation, therefore it must be dangerous, and I need to get out of here as quickly as possible.”

Emotional Response: ANXIETY

In Part 3, we’ll examine additional cognitive errors associated with the development of negative mood states.

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit to learn more.

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