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Overgeneralization

Get Past This Common Cognitive Distortion

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Updated October 10, 2013

Negative thinking is a common issue for people with mood and anxiety disorders. People with panic disorder are often prone to overgeneralization, a cognitive distortion that can contribute to depression and anxiety. Learn about overgeneralization and ways to overcome this type of negative thinking.

Definition

Overgeneralization is one of many cognitive distortions or faulty thinking patterns that frequently affect people with depression or anxiety-related issues. Overgeneralization occurs when a person takes one isolated event and generalizes it to all other circumstances. This can often be seen when a person uses terms like always and never to describe their life events.

When a person overgeneralizes, they view any negative situation that occurs as being an unlimited pattern of setbacks and defeat. People with panic disorder may see their symptoms as a hindrance that controls their life. They may believe that due to their condition, others won’t like them, they will never have what they want, or they cannot succeed.   

See if you notice your own thinking patterns in the examples below and learn how to reframe your overgeneralizations. 

Examples

Brandon carefully plan for a job interview. This interview was with a company that he had been wanting to work for and a position he was qualified for had come up. Brandon was understandably a little nervous at the interview, but was able to confidently make it through the process. A week later, he was called by the company and informed that they had decided to go with another candidate. When Brandon found out, he began to think that he is always rejected buy others and that he will never get the job he wants. He also started to believe that he is an unlikeable and unlucky person in all aspects of his life.

In her late 20’s, Lisa was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD). She has been prescribed medication for SAD, but continues to struggle with blushing, shaking, and having negative automatic thoughts when she is in social situations.  Despite feeling anxious around groups of people, Lisa recently attended a friend’s party. At the party, she became so anxious that she decided to leave earlier than planned. She thought to herself “I am never comfortable around others” and “My anxiety will always get in the way of my life.” Lisa’s thoughts continued to snowball and soon she is feeling extremely sad and anxious.  

Rethink It

Brandon is overgeneralizing the job rejection to be an indication of who he is in life. He views this one disappointment as just being a part of the many letdowns he was handed in life. Brandon is not able to see that he has only failed at getting this one job, but that certainly does not mean that he is a failure at life. The person that interviewed him may have liked him, but went with a more qualified candidate. It can be possible that the person didn’t like Brandon, but that does not make him an overall unlikeable person. To overcome this negative thinking, Brandon needs to stop generalizing this one event to his entire life and self-worth.   

Lisa’s thinking process is common for people with anxiety disorders. She believes her life is a series of never-ending setbacks. Lisa can rethink things and say to herself “My anxiety sometimes interferes with my life and I occasionally feel uncomfortable around others.” Lisa may consider being proud of herself for attending the party for as long as she did. She can keep in mind the small steps forward lead to big changes down the road.

To reduce all-or-nothing thinking, try noticing when you are using absolute terms, such as always or never, to describe a situation you are unhappy about. Either eliminate these words or replace them with terms, such as sometimes or occasionally. Also, challenge your beliefs and ask yourself if they really are true in every aspect of your life. Do you really always mess things up? Are you really never in control of your anxiety?

Burns, D. D. “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,” Avon Books: New York, 1999.

Burns, D.D. “When Panic Attacks: The New Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life” Broadway Books: New York, 2006.

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