Stop us if this sounds familiar: You get a bad grade and your brain goes into overdrive. You think, “I’m a screw-up, I’m going to fail this class, my GPA will tank, . . .” and on and on. You’re not intentionally being extra dramatic—you’re falling victim to something called cognitive distortions. These thoughts distort how we perceive the world. They also can make us feel, well, crappy.
Here’s the thing: These unhelpful ideas are actually a survival mechanism. If you paid attention to everything all the time, you’d be exhausted. Instead, your brain takes shortcuts. It makes assumptions about little things (for instance, the smell of bacon probably means breakfast) so it can focus on the important stuff.
Sometimes these shortcuts are helpful, but other times, not so much. “Cognitive distortions happen when a shortcut leads us in the wrong direction,” says psychologist Andrea Bonior. Luckily, you can learn to correct erroneous assumptions. Read on for the most common mental traps we fall into—and how to fight back.