How Therapy Can Help With Cognitive Thinking

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated April 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Everything you experience, everything you perceive in the world around you, and all the relationships you have are filtered through the cognitive thoughts you think about them. Your cognition and thinking affects both your emotions and your actions. As such, when you have problems with cognitive processes like decision-making and problem-solving, your mental health may experience issues. Cognitive psychology can help you improve some of these thought processes in order to promote improved mental well-being. If you're interested in this type of treatment, you can ask a therapist for cognitive psychology examples that might help you with the challenges you may be facing.

What is cognitive thought?

Build a better life for yourself through cognitive therapy

Cognitive psychology studies thoughts, including any mental processes you use to gain knowledge and better understand the world and yourself. Through various abilities, the human brain interprets, categorizes, and stores information about your experiences, thoughts, and senses. These processes include:

  • Storing and recalling memories (including short-term and long-term memory)

  • Forming associations between objects, people, or other thoughts

  • Recognizing patterns

  • Language skills, or learning, understanding, and using language

  • Acquiring knowledge

  • Paying attention

  • Sensory information, or perceiving the world around you

  • Taking thought-based action

  • Solving problems

  • Visual perception, or creating mental images

Some scientists split cognition into two categories: hot and cold. A hot process involves emotion in some way, such as reward-based learning. Cold cognition refers to a mental process that does not involve feelings, such as working memory.

What is cognitive psychology?

Simply put, cognitive psychology is the study of thought. Cognitive psychologists focus on the mental action and process of perceiving and grasping the world around us. Psychologists and counselors can apply these insights as they work with their clients to further develop their cognitive abilities and mental processes. Cognitive psychology recognizes healthy patterns as essential to maintaining good mental health and building a satisfying life.


Cognitive therapy is a type of counseling that focuses on important processes behind emotions, decisions, and mental health issues. It addresses potential impairment by analyzing a person's executive functions or higher thought processes. These include working memory, mental flexibility, and inhibition control. Cognitive psychologists may work to help you identify negative thought patterns that affect your daily life. Changing these processes to be more positive can result in improved thinking, better emotional health, and healthier behaviors in the long term.

Additionally, a cognitive therapist might help you recognize biases and assess distorted thinking. If you decide a thought is unhelpful or inaccurate, they may guide you as you learn to modify those thoughts and beliefs through cognitive reframing.

Benefits and more

Using strategies in cognitive psychology may help you think more rationally. Your therapist can teach you how to have more control over your thoughts and shift your perspectives to think about things more productively.

You may become more self-confident as you learn to choose the most rational and helpful thoughts, which may help improve the quality of your life. Once you replace negative thought patterns with positive ones, you may find that the results you get from your actions are more satisfying than before.

Problems associated with distortions

Cognitive distortions are a pattern of thought processes that may negatively impact your life. A counselor can work with you during therapy to uncover and address negative thoughts that may impair mental functioning. Problems with these processes may cause behavioral issues, which may affect your mood and relationships. The following are examples of how thought distortions may negatively impact your life.

  • Heavy gambling

When people struggle with gambling addiction, it may have a basis in thought patterns. For example, one study found that heavy gamblers had several thought distortions.

In the study, most participants believed they had some form of control over the outcome even when they didn't. Some thought they could predict when they would win. When they lost, they often reframed the loss so that it seemed like a part of a winning pattern.

  • Test performance

Did you know how you think about tests could impact your performance on them? Many people experience bodily symptoms and worry about test anxiety. Cognitive psychology researchers found that thought distortions, such as exaggerating the potential outcome, affected the anxiety people experienced and their exam performance. This can be important to note if you are a student or someone who must take various tests for their career.

  • Emotional disorders

Negative thinking processes can affect your cognitive development and may make you more vulnerable to psychological disorders. Many cognitive psychology studies have explored the connection between cognitive distortions and depression and found that they are related.

In one review of research studies, psychologists found that these distortions may be associated with emotional disorders as a potential cause.

  • Aging challenges

Scientists are researching links between poor mental function and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in later life. Along with other risk factors for Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a possible forerunner to Alzheimer’s, high perceived stress and poor coping abilities may also be closely related to a decrease in healthy mental functions.

Errors and their impact

Cognitive errors are harmful and often inaccurate ways of thinking about experiences. There are a few thinking errors that psychologists have identified. Learn how they can affect your life and how you might reframe them in a more positive light.

“It’s all or nothing”

All-or-nothing thinking may go by many names in psychology. These usually include polarized and black-and-white thinking.

When you have this thought pattern, you may see everything in extremes. Rather than recognizing that different situations and events are variable, you may perceive things as either one side of a spectrum or the other, with no room for a middle ground or "gray area." For example, you might see something as all "good" or all "bad."

You could feel anger, sadness, or fear when you see things this way. Instead of thinking in all-or-nothing terms, your therapist may use cognitive psychology to help you discover that many things fall somewhere in between the extremes.

“I only see one bad thing”

Often called a mental filter, this distortion may happen 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. Using this mental filter might make you feel that one action has ruined the entire 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 more damaging than it is. This thinking pattern can be typical in personality disorders or those with trauma. Learning about your attachment style may be beneficial in changing your thought patterns.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

“One instance proves a pattern”

Overgeneralization can mean you take one negative bit of information and generalize it across the board.

For example, perhaps you make a mistake with a work assignment. When you judge your entire work history by this mistake, you might view yourself and your career negatively.

However, once you recognize that the mistake was part of the process and acknowledge all the tasks you've done well, you could feel better about yourself and your work and feel more equipped to do your job well.

“I know what you’re up to”

Have you ever felt that you knew what someone else was thinking? Psychologists call this distortion "mind reading." This distortion may also be referred to as “making assumptions.”

Suppose your friend showed up at a party, and you first saw an angry expression on their face. Then, instead of asking them what was wrong, you concluded that they were mad at you. Due to your assumption, you may have missed out on a connection with your friend. This situation shows how mind reading might impact others.

To avoid this type of thinking, you may decide to get more information before assuming the worst and accepting that you can't always know what others are thinking. You might also learn ways to directly communicate when you want to know how someone feels.

“The positive doesn’t mean anything”

This statement is an example of disqualifying the positive. It can mean that you notice when something good happens, but you tell yourself it isn't as positive as it appears.

For example, imagine you received an award for a community project you helped complete. Rather than accepting it as a token of appreciation, you might think you’re receiving the award for superficial reasons.

Using psychology, you may 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, this cognitive distortion can indicate that you think you know what will happen next, even if you have little or no evidence.

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 for a new job altogether. By recognizing that there are many different possible outcomes, you may face the job search with more positivity and hopefulness.

“The worst thing that could happen happened!”

Catastrophizing happens when you exaggerate the importance or meaning of something negative. For example, someone who is late for their child's sports event may tell themselves that being late makes them a bad parent or that there's no chance to redeem themselves from an error.

Psychologists may help you learn to assess that thought and realize that, while being late wasn't what you wanted, it may not have the immense consequences you initially thought.

“It’s not that important”

Another distortion is minimizing positive things. Imagine this hypothetical scenario: 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. You tell yourself you didn't do anything special except stay at the job long enough. Even though others want the promotion, you feel like it's meaningless, so you don't feel happy, excited, or optimistic.

A cognitive therapist may help you recognize when you've accomplished something and how to congratulate yourself and feel grateful for what you have. 

“I should…”

"Should" statements may make you feel bad about yourself and cause you to make decisions that may make you unhappy. When you tell yourself you "should" do something, you might set yourself up to feel guilty if you're unable to. 

Through therapy, you may begin to let go of ideas about what you should do and focus on the actions that are the most helpful and within your power to do at the moment.

“I feel that way, so it’s true”

It can be healthy to express emotions. However, when you engage in emotional reasoning, you may let your emotions influence your thoughts and actions.

For example, if you feel anxious, you might think something scary will happen. As you develop new thought processes, you may notice your feelings without letting them influence your choices.

“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 "clumsy." Afterward, you might avoid trying anything that requires manual dexterity.

However, as you discuss this label with your counselor, you may begin to see that it is only one incident and doesn't indicate who you are as a person.

Build a better life for yourself through cognitive therapy

“It’s all my fault”

Personalization is a distortion in which you experience disappointments personally or blame yourself irrationally. If you’re having this thought problem, you might think you’re to blame anytime anyone around you is upset.

For example, if someone says they’re not having a good time, you might wonder if it’s because of you. Therapy and self-awareness may help you identify when you’re to blame or not.

“I have no control” or “I am in complete control”

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

Talking to a psychologist

In many ways, a cognitive psychologist may help you correct unhelpful ways of thinking. They can give you tools to solve problems and understand cognitive biases. They may also remind you of lifestyle factors, such as a healthy diet and physical activity, that may improve mood and cognitive functions.

Online therapy is one potential pathway to get cognitive therapy and learn more about various aspects of cognitive development. Cognitive therapy plays a significant role in addressing the processes involved in cognitive development, assisting individuals in achieving a better understanding of their thoughts and emotions. You can chat with your therapist via phone, texting, video chat, or in-app messaging wherever you have a reliable internet connection. Another option is to speak with a counselor in your local area.

This study conducted by psychologists and researchers from three universities specifically explores the efficacy of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapy often utilized by cognitive psychologists and therapists to aid in restructuring thinking patterns. It found online CBT effective at successfully treating various mental health issues and concerns, including cognitive problems caused by illogical thinking and thinking fallacies, depression, anxiety, and relationship troubles.

No matter how you decide to get help, the decision to improve your thought patterns through cognitive psychology may be the beginning of a new way of thinking, feeling, and behaving as you interact with the world around you. If you’re interested in signing up for an online platform, you might try one like BetterHelp, which has a vast database of experts.


Managing your cognitive health can feel challenging. However, understanding our cognitive processes is a critical component of improving overall mental well-being. As our thoughts and experiences are constantly changing, it’s useful to take advantage of different tools that can help us adapt and grow. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be an effective way to navigate these challenges, helping us recognize and reframe negative thought patterns and ultimately improving the quality of our lives. Taking the first step by reaching out to a counselor can be a transformative experience that sets us on the path toward better mental health and personal growth.
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