Aside from physical vulnerabilities, our thoughts also influence the way we feel. When we believe the negative messages directed from the environment towards us, or when we criticize ourselves in a harsh way - that can trigger negative emotions. In order to prevent this from happening, we first need to become aware of what we are thinking. You got a bad grade at school and you started thinking "I am such a fraud, and this is the proof. The good grades I've been getting till now are a lie, and now everybody knows". The resulting emotions - shame, guilt, even self-hatred. In this exercise, we are going to try to fix these distorted ways of thinking.

DBT Emotion Regulation: Emotions & Cognitive Vulnerability
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Cognitive Distortions

We are going to look at several types of cognitive distortions and the respective ways of dealing with these types of thoughts. Cognitive distortions are unrealistic perceptions and interpretations of what is happening around or inside us. This concept is characteristic for cognitive behavioral therapy. First you will look at the three types of cognitive distortions below. After examining them, your job will be to think of a situation where you felt overwhelming emotions and try to recognize and fix the cognitive distortions you were using before you started feeling the intense negative emotions.

1. All-Or-Nothing Thinking

This type of unrealistic thinking is very common and it's almost always present when we think about a certain event in a biased way. It refers to seeing things in extreme categories - "I am a loser", "I am bad at my job", "Everybody hates me." The truth about these statements is that everyone can find at least several arguments against the categories "loser", "bad at job", and "everyone hates me". Labels and derogatory names that perhaps you sometimes give yourself are never helpful and never true. So, whenever you are certain about some negative label that you've put on yourself, or some definitive and negative category, try to think about the objective arguments against your biased opinion.

2. Maximization Or Minimization

Maximization refers to taking the negative aspect of a certain situation and catastrophizing it, or blowing it out of proportion. This does not mean to undermine the situation or let some problematic aspects slide, but to simply be realistic about what the severity of the problem is, no more, no less. For example, if you think "I was so socially anxious at this party, I was sweating non-stop and I'm sure that everyone thinks I am weird." - then here you are probably using maximization of this negative aspect. The truth is, the other people at the party probably were busy with other things. Also, we always tend to focus on our self-perceived flaws even though other people most often don't notice them.

Minimization is the opposite case - when you are diminishing the importance of a positive aspect from a certain situation. "Yes, I got a promotion, but my colleagues still don't like me very much." Although this is undoubtedly a positive event, the person ruminates over another issue.

3. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization refers to the assumption that if something bad happened once, then it will happen again and again. You had a fight with your partner - you assume that this will go on forever until you split; a college student gets one bad grade and she assumes that she is an unworthy student; you had a period where you were clinically depressed and you assume that it is inevitable that you will experience it again.

This is an unrealistic and distorted form of thinking. Over time you will get more effective in noticing the distortions in your thinking, thus you will be able to prevent the overwhelming emotions from reining.

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Examining Your Thoughts

Now that you got familiar with the types of distortions, think of a recent event where you were overwhelmed with intense negative emotions. Try to remember the situation and what you were thinking before the emotion process took place. Take your time. Use the worksheet and try to write down the train of thought you had.

Then, think about which of these three types of distortions applies to your case. At the end, write a rational, objective response based on the distortion you identified. Look at the examples below to get the idea.


Thoughts Cognitive Distortions Objective Response
"I feel like there is nothing good in my life right now, I am so depressed." All-or-nothing thinking "It is not true that there is not a single thing that is good in my life. I am hard-working and I've managed to keep my job despite how I feel"
"My girlfriend's tone over the phone was weird for a while. Maybe she wants to break up with me. " Maximization "I am probably overthinking this and blowing it out of proportion. I am sure it is nothing."
"I gained a lot of weight, and I will never be able to go back to my slim figure." Overgeneralization "I gained weight this one time, but all my life I have been successfully managing my weight. If I did it all these years, I can do it again."
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Take stock of your habits and how they are affecting you. How would changes in your habits change the way you feel.

DBT Emotional Regulation: Emotions & Cognitive Vulnerability

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Can there be more than one distortion in a single entry?

Yes, it is possible to have more than one cognitive distortions. There are also other cognitive distortions in CBT that encompass more forms of unrealistic thinking. Nevertheless, the point of all of them is to try to find a rational response to the automatic thoughts you have. So, in every entry that you have, just focus on the bigger picture, the other side of the story. If you are having trouble with this, imagine that you are responding to a friend who is sharing his thoughts with you.

How can I more easily recognize which distortions are present in my thoughts?

Since they share certain similarities, at the beginning it is a little hard to recognize the distortions fast. Nevertheless, as with all of the other DBT skills, practicing them is the best teacher. Be patient and persistent. If you find this exercise beneficial, we encourage you to do more research.

Is it necessary to write all of this down? Can't I just do it in my head?

If you find yourself in a situation where you can't exactly take the time to write everything down immediately, that is okay. Nevertheless, it is necessary to take 10-15 minutes during the day and note down the way you were thinking about the event. It is different than when you go through the thoughts and distortions in your head. That way you won't have enough time to process them well.

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If you have any behavioral health questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare or mental health care provider. This article is supported by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from behavioral health societies and governmental agencies. However, it is not a substitute for professional behavioral health advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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Comments About Emotions & Cognitive Vulnerability

  1. This is very good course I think the fact one has to print off the worksheet and just not have the worksheet handed to him or her puts the responsibility on the individual doing the exercise. Thank you for creating this it will most definitely help those who choose to undertake the work.

  2. These exercises are easy to follow and I’m glad I found this structured guidance after graduating DBT IOP. Thank you for the help! I don’t have a printer so I used my phone notes app to do the exercise.

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