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  • Michael Ryan

Training Your Brain to Change

Your brain is like a muscle—it becomes weaker if you don’t use it. And when your brain weakens, so does your self-confidence, self-esteem, motivation, and energy. You’ve probably heard that exercise, diet, and proper rest are important components of good brain health, but today I want to focus on thoughts.

Some thoughts that lead to problematic beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. We call these negative thoughts “cognitive distortions,” because they are usually not based on facts or evidence, so you have the ability to change them. The first step to better brain health is to recognize that you’re having a negative thought. I've listed the 12 most common ones below. Which one(s) identify you? How are they holding you back?

12 Common Cognitive Distortions

1. All or none thinking—black and white thinking without shades of grey. Example: I can’t be an Olympic athlete so I’m not going to exercise. Another example: everybody is untrustworthy so I’m not going to open myself up to anyone.

2. Overgeneralizing—If one single negative event happens, then everything else will be negative. Example: I stubbed my toe this morning, so the rest of my day is going to be terrible.

3. Mental filter—picking out one single negative detail and focusing on that. Example: My hair is out of place so I am not going to do well on this presentation.

4. Disqualifying the positive—rejecting the positive evidence for a negative belief. Example: I earned an A on that test, but I’m not smart, so I’m going to fail the next time.

5. Jumping to conclusions—making negative assumptions without evidence. Example: There’s no way anybody in this group is going to like my idea.

6. Mind-reading—concluding that someone is reacting negatively towards you. Example: They were looking at their hands the whole time I was talking to them so therefore they must not like me.

7. Fortune teller error—being convinced that things will turn out horribly despite the evidence. Example: I’m not going to get the job.

8. Catastrophizing—exaggerating the importance or lack of importance of something. Example: I like a girl, but she didn’t talk to me, so I’m never going to have a girlfriend.

9. Emotional reasoning—negative emotions reflect reality, or…I feel it so it must be true. Example: Feeling sad about one relationship and having that sadness affect every other relationship.

10. Shoulds/musts/oughts—this type of thinking creates guilt and shame. Example: I must complete every project on my plate right now!

11. Labeling/mislabeling—extreme overgeneralization and attaching negative language to a mistake. Example: I forgot to include someone in an email therefore I’m a bad employee.

12. Personalization—taking everything personally. Example: The group project did not go well, so our failure is completely my fault.

What to do

The first step is to notice what you’re doing. Then, write it down. The act of writing requires a stronger effort in your brain. Next, as best as you can, write down the type of distortion. As you track your progress, patterns in your thinking might emerge that could provide important insight. Lastly, create a rational response to replace the negative thought. If you’re not sure what to write, a good question to ask is: “What does the evidence show?” Replace your negative thoughts with realistic thoughts and notice the difference. Happy thinking!

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