How Therapy Helps With Cognitive Thought

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated April 2, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Tonia Cassaday , LISW

Everything you experience, everything you perceive in the world around you, and all the relationships you have are filtered through the thoughts you think about them. Your thinking impacts both your emotions and your actions. And when you have problems with your cognitive processes, your mental health suffers. Fortunately, cognitive psychology offers a way to improve those cognitive thought processes so you can build a better life.

What Is Cognitive Thought?

Cognitive psychology studies cognitive thoughts, including any mental processes that you use to gain knowledge and better understand the world and yourself. Through these processes, you interpret, categorize, and store information based on your experiences and thoughts and from your senses. It includes:

  • Storing and recalling memories
  • Forming associations between objects, people, or other thoughts
  • Recognizing patterns
  • Learning, understanding, and using language
  • Paying attention
  • Perceiving the world around you
  • Taking thought-based action
  • Solving problems
  • Creating mental images

Without cognitive thought, life would be bleak, boring, and colorless. Cognitive psychology recognizes that healthy cognitive patterns are essential to maintaining good mental health and building a satisfying life.

What Is Cognitive Psychology?

Simply put, cognitive psychology is the study of cognitive thought, as described above. Cognitive psychologists conduct experiments to understand better how people process thoughts about the world around them. Psychologists and counselors can apply these insights as they work with their clients.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy is a type of counseling that is based on cognitive psychology and focuses on the mental processes behind emotions, decisions, and mental health issues. Cognitive psychologists can help you identify negative thought patterns and challenge their validity. And, they help you recognize and assess distorted thinking. If you decide a thought is unhelpful or inaccurate, they can guide you as you modify those thoughts and beliefs.

Benefits of Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology can help you in many ways. For starters, it can help you think more rationally. Your therapist can teach you how to have more control over your thoughts. As you learn to choose the most rational and helpful thoughts, you can become more self-confident. If you are troubled by anxiety now, you can get some relief when your thinking processes improve. Finally, once you replace negative thought patterns with positive ones, you may even find that the results you get from your actions are more satisfying than before.

Problems Associated with Cognitive Distortions

A part of cognitive psychology involves thought distortions. During therapy, your counselor will work with you to uncover and address negative thoughts. Problems with your thought patterns can cause you to do things that create situations you’d rather avoid. They can also affect your feelings as well as your relationships. The following are examples of how thought distortions can impact your life.

Heavy Gambling

When people gamble excessively, it may be partly because of the way they’re thinking. For example, one study found that heavy gamblers had several thought distortions. They believed they had control over the outcome even when they didn’t. They thought they could predict when they would win. And, when they lost, they reframed the loss so that it seemed like a part of a winning pattern.

Test Performance

Did you know the way you think about tests could impact how well you do on them? Many people experience bodily symptoms and worry about test anxiety. Cognitive psychology researchers found that thought distortions, such as catastrophizing, impacted the test anxiety people experienced as well as their performance on exams.

Emotional Disorders

Negative thinking processes can make you more vulnerable to psychological disorders. Many cognitive psychology studies have explored the connection between cognitive errors and depression and found that they are related. In one review of research studies, cognitive psychologists found that these distortions were not only associated with emotional disorders but seemed to be at least a part of the cause.

Cognitive Errors and Their Impact

So, what are these unhealthy thought patterns of cognitive psychology? They are negative and inaccurate ways of thinking about experiences. Cognitive psychologists have identified many different cognitive errors. Here are a few thinking errors you might make, how they can impact your life, and how you can think about them differently.

“It’s All or Nothing”

All-or-nothing thinking goes by many names in cognitive psychology, including polarized thinking and black-and-white thinking. When you have this thought pattern, you see everything in extremes. Rather than recognizing that most things are true only to some degree, you tend to perceive things as being either perfect or a failure, or either incredible or terrible. When you see things this way, you may feel angry, disappointed, or worthless. Instead of thinking in all-or-nothing terms, your therapist will use cognitive psychology to help you discover that many things fall somewhere in between the extremes.

“This One Bad Thing Is All I See”

Often called a mental filter, this cognitive psychology distortion happens when you only recognize one negative aspect of a situation or relationship and judge the entire thing by that one downside. One example might be if your spouse doesn’t hug you when they come home from work one day. If you’ve got this mental filter on, you might only see that one aspect of your relationship. Until you learn to assess the relationship based on many different words and actions rather than just one, you may feel like the relationship is over.

“This One Instance Proves a Pattern”

Overgeneralization in cognitive psychology means that you take one negative bit of information and generalize it across the board. For example, you might make a mistake with your work assignment. When you judge your entire work history by this one mistake, you would probably feel like an utter failure. However, once you can recognize that that mistake is just one little hiccup and look at all the things you’ve done well, then you can feel better about yourself and ultimately do a better job.

 “I Know What You’re Thinking”

Cognitive psychologists call this distortion mind reading. It’s not the trick employed by stage magicians, though. Instead, it’s an assumption that you know what another person is thinking about you. Suppose your friend showed up at a party, and the first thing you saw was an angry expression on their face. Then, instead of asking them what was wrong, you jumped to the conclusion that they were angry at you. To avoid this, you can learn to get more information before assuming the worst and accept that you can’t always know what others are thinking.

“That Good Thing Doesn’t Mean Anything”

This statement is an example of disqualifying the positive. It means you do notice when something good happens, but you tell yourself that it isn’t as positive as it appears. Maybe you received an award from a community project you helped complete. Rather than accepting it as a token of their appreciation, you might think they’re just giving you the award for political reasons. Using cognitive psychology, you can learn to accept the positive things in your life and recognize your value to the world.

“I Know What’s Going To Happen”

Also called fortune-telling in cognitive psychology, this cognitive error means that you think you know what will happen next even though you have little or no evidence to go on. Consider what would happen if you thought you would never get a new job just because you had not found one yet. With that thought in your mind, you might give up trying altogether. By recognizing that there are many different possible outcomes, you can face the job search with more positivity and hopefulness.

“This Is the Worst Thing That Could Happen!”

Catastrophizing happens when you exaggerate the importance or meaning of something negative. This cognitive psychology distortion might occur if you’re late for your child’s sports event. Sure, you would like to be on time, but for some valid reason, you were 10 minutes late. If you tell yourself this one incident is going to scar your child for life and that makes you an awful parent, you’re probably magnifying its importance. Cognitive psychologists can help you learn to assess that thought and possibly realize that, while it wasn’t what you wanted, it is a small problem rather than the end of the world.

 “It’s Not That Important”

Another cognitive psychology distortion is minimizing positive things. Imagine this: Your boss calls you into their office to tell you how pleased they are with your performance and they’ve decided to give you a promotion. But you tell yourself you didn’t do anything special except stay at the job long enough. And even though others wanted the promotion, you think it’s meaningless. So, you don’t feel happy, excited, or positive. A cognitive therapist can help you recognize that, yes, this is a significant recognition of the outstanding work you’ve accomplished.

“I Should…”

‘Should’ statements can lead you to feel bad about yourself, and they can also cause you to make decisions that will make you unhappy. When you tell yourself you should do something, you set yourself up to feel guilty even if you aren’t able to do it. Through therapy, you can begin to let go of ideas about what you should do and focus on the actions that are not only the most helpful but also within your power to do.

“I Feel That Way, So It’s True”

It’s healthy to experience and express emotions. However, when you engage in emotional reasoning, you let your emotions influence your thoughts and actions. For example, if you feel anxious, you might think that something scary is going to happen. But as you develop healthier thought processes, you can notice your feelings without letting them influence the choices you make.

“There’s A Name For People Like Me”

Labeling yourself or others can be a problematic distortion. For instance, if you dropped a glass, and it broke, you might think of yourself as a “clumsy oaf.” Then, you might avoid trying anything that requires manual dexterity. But as you discuss this label with your counselor, you can begin to see that it is only one incident and doesn’t mean anything about who you are as a person.

“It’s All My Fault”

Personalization is a distortion in which you take everything too personally or blame yourself irrationally. If you’re having this thought problem, you might think you’re to blame anytime that anyone around you is upset. Or, if someone says they’re not having a good time, you might think that they’re saying you’re a boring person, even if there are many others at the event. Therapy can help you sort out when you’re to blame, and when you’re not.

“I Have No Control Over This” Or “I Am In Complete Control”

Control distortions can influence your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If you feel that you have no control, you might not take actions you need to take in order to resolve critical issues. And, if you believe you are in complete control, you might take unnecessary risks. In therapy sessions, you can identify these distortions, realize that you usually have some but not all control, and make better decisions.

“Life Should Be Fair”

The fairness fallacy can cause you emotional distress. This distortion involves the belief that everything in life should be fair. Believing that life has treated you unfairly can make you feel miserable and unhappy. As you learn to accept that there is no guarantee of fairness in life, you can begin to deal with issues more effectively.

Talking to a Cognitive Psychologist

In all these ways and many more, a cognitive psychologist can help you correct unhelpful ways of thinking. They can also give you tools for recognizing, assessing, and changing thoughts on your own later one. If you believe a cognitive therapist can help you develop healthier thought patterns to build a better life, it makes sense to talk to someone trained in this area of psychology.

You can discuss these cognitive issues with a licensed therapist online at BetterHelp at your convenience, wherever you are. Another option is to speak with a counselor in your local area. No matter where you get help, the decision to improve your thought patterns may be the beginning of a new way of thinking, feeling, and behaving as you interact in the world.

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.