Thinking Traps

Thinking Traps

In this lesson, we are going to talk about some of the common thinking patterns that get us into trouble. They can be called cognitive distortions, maladaptive cognitions, or many other names. I just like to call them thinking traps.

  • Thinking Traps are common illogical thinking patterns that usually generate negative emotional responses.
  • Everyone engages in these thinking traps at times, but people who have anxiety or other mental health issues tend to experience them at a problematic level.

Let's go through a few of the most common thinking traps and describe how they screw you over.

Mental Filter:

  • In my books, I refer to this as wearing "shit colored glasses" because it makes you see the world in a gross, distorted way.
  • This is where you selectively filter out all of the positive aspects of a situation and only take in the parts that support the negative feelings that you already have.
  • Mental filtering is really tricky, because it can lead you to think that you are actually being quite logical. In reality, you are only seeing the negative evidence and basing your emotional reactions on this flawed perspective.
  • It is very similar to only surrounding yourself with people who think in a specific way. That will inevitably influence your own thinking patterns.

Mental Filter Example:

Let’s say you had a discussion with your parent or partner about your mental illness and during the course of the discussion, they started tearing up or even full out crying. That might upset you and you could easily jump to conclusions like – this is overwhelming for them, I’m such a burden, I never should have talked about this, they are sad because I’m broken, etc. You might even think that the whole conversation was a waste of time, that their day is going to be ruined, and be totally embarrassed about the whole situation.

This scenario highlights some serious mental filtering. All of the assumptions above are definitely possibilities, but there are also many other potential positive aspects of the situation that you are filtering out. For one, the person you are talking to actually took the time to talk to you instead of just blowing you off. That's a good thing. Crying can also be a sign that they are actually recognizing the gravity of what you are talking about and not just assuming that you are being dramatic.

If you aren't able to see past your mental filter, you might just start reacting to those negative assumptions that you are making and treat the other person worse. That could, in turn, cause that person to start acting in a negative way... basically a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Mind Reading:

  • While we all wish that we had super powers, unfortunately we do not. That means that you can't read minds. Sorry.
  • However, mind reading is one of the most common thinking traps that people with anxiety fall into.
  • Mind reading is when you assume that you know what someone else is thinking. You assume that you know the motives and intentions behind their actions.
  • In reality, you can only take guesses about what goes on in someone else's mind.

Mind Reading Example:

Imagine that you are currently getting therapy and in one particular session, your therapist seems a little checked out. They aren't making as much eye contact as usual, they glance at the clock more often, and they just seem more distant. If you were to engage in mind reading here, you might assume that your therapist is bored by what you are saying or that they have better things to be doing. Obviously, that would not make you feel awesome. You might be annoyed, embarrassed, or even angry at your shrink for being so obviously uninterested. However, your feeling that they are uninterested is just an assumption. You don't know that for sure.

It could be that your therapist has an ailing grandparent in the hospital. They can't take the entire week off of work, but they are basically on call since their family member could decline at any moment. Rather than being uninterested in what you are saying, they might be anxious and waiting for an update. If you knew that was the case, you might still not feel great, but you wouldn't be feeling as negative and offended as you would if you were mind reading.

It's important to note that a little mind reading can be good. At a certain level, this is what empathy is all about. Trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes and anticipate their needs. But in anxiety, more often than not, mind reading just gets you into trouble. You are simply taking guesses about how someone feels, but when you take those guesses and react to them as fact... no good.


  • Catastrophizing comes from the word "catastrophe", so you can probably guess what it's all about.
  • It means that you take a small setback or piece of negative information and blow it up into something way worse than it actually is.
  • You magnify the negative aspects and wind up feeling hopeless or overwhelmed.

Catastrophizing Example:

Catastrophizing reminds me of the holidays. Let's say that you have a holiday coming up with your family and you said that you'd bring apple pie. Well, when the day of the holiday arrives, you realize that the stores are all cleared out of apple pie and you don't have the ingredients or time to make one from scratch. Someone who is catastrophizing might say, "Fuck it! This is all messed up. I'm not going at all. I'm such a failure. Why can't I get anything right?" They would assume that people are going to notice and be upset about not having the pie and that their family will not be understanding.

Catastrophizing often involves a downward spiral. It starts with something simple like the pie, but by the end of your chain of thoughts, you are crying because you can never live up to mom's expectations and you should probably just move to Alaska or something where you won't have anyone to disappoint (no offense, Alaska).

Black and White Thinking:

  • Can also be called "all or nothing thinking" or "polarized thinking".
  • Black and white thinking refers to the tendency to group things into one category of the other without considering the intricacies and grey areas of the situation at hand.

Black and White Thinking Example:

Black and white thinking often comes up in therapy. When a client forgets to do the "homework" assignment from a previous session, they might feel like they are a failure at therapy. In other words, if they weren't able to complete the task perfectly, they failed. Obviously this sort of interpretation doesn't feel good.

When you engage in black and white thinking, you stop yourself from noticing the benefits of the work that you did put in. In reality, even if you only do part of a task or try to get around to it and fail, you are still able to benefit. For example, if you planned on going to the gym for an hour but only made it for 25 minutes, you still got 25 minutes in. It's not like that 25 minutes somehow doesn't count because you had planned on something else.

Emotional Reasoning:

  • Emotional reasoning is the tendency to believe that just because we feel something, it must be true.
  • Or even if you don't know for sure that it is true, we react as if it were true.

Emotional Reasoning Example:

Emotional reasoning comes up often in relationships. For instance if there is one partner that feels that the other is cheating or being unfaithful in some way, they may start reacting as if that were the truth, even if they don't know for sure. Sometimes this is based on behaviors in their partner and other times this is a projection of their own negative feelings about themselves. Either way, the feeling of certainty that comes along with emotional reasoning might cause that partner to act negatively toward the other, which can actually create a rift in the relationship where there was not one already.

Emotional reasoning is super applicable to anxiety because when you feel emotionally anxious, that paints your perception of the world. If you feel anxious, you are going to be more likely to interpret things as dangerous or threatening. This is one of the reasons that learning how to physiologically regulate your body is so important. When you feel anxious before you even walk out the door, you are setting yourself up to feel more sensitized to threats in your environment. If instead you can do some deep breathing and calm your body down a bit before leaving, you will have more of a buffer and feel less on-edge.


Use your journal to write down which thinking traps are your most common pitfalls. Then track them. Write down each situation that causes you to engage in one of these thinking traps and identify your errors in thinking. At this point, you don't need to do anything more than increase your awareness of your thinking patterns. We'll get more into the nitty gritty later on.


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