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Cognitive (Thought) Distortions and Panic Disorder

Are Your Thoughts Keeping You in a State of Panic?


Updated March 02, 2009

Aaron T. Beck is well-known for his contributions to the field of cognitive therapy. Beck recognized how cognitive (thought) distortions or errors of logic contribute to depression and other emotional difficulties. Simply put, errors in one’s reasoning lead to faulty assumptions and misconceptions. If you have panic disorder (PD), agoraphobia or another anxiety disorder, such misconceptions are likely to perpetuate your symptoms and hamper your recovery.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Arbitrary Inferences

Do you imagine the worst case scenarios in situations? Do you “catastrophize” possible outcomes when thinking about how your panic attacks may affect your ability to do certain things? This type of thinking is probably based on arbitrary inferences. Basically, this means you are making an assumption without any real evidence.

For example, you imagine that you are in a work meeting and experience a panic attack. You envision yourself being unable to recover and fainting in front of your co-workers. But, the fact is, you have never fainted during a panic attack.

Selective Abstraction

Do you tend to focus on your perceived shortcomings rather than on your successes? Selective abstraction is when you make conclusions based on only the negative details of an event or situation.

Let’s say going to the grocery store triggers your panic response. But, you courageously enter the store and do your shopping. While standing in line, you begin to feel your anxiety rising and the impending panic that follows. You get through the situation and feel relief as you head toward the exit door. But, your thoughts are entirely focused on the panic attack while standing in line and your perceived “failure.” In reality, you had great courage and many “successes” when you went into the store and did your shopping despite your fears.


Sometimes we have assumptions based on an isolated event that we inappropriately generalize to other events or situations. For example, you’re having a difficult time with your teenager. You conclude that you’re a bad mother because you can’t get through to your child. You then go on to doubt your parenting abilities.


Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. Some are big, and some are small. But, if you find yourself focusing more on your mistakes than they truly deserve, you are probably making the cognitive error of magnification.


You had a date last week and thought it went pretty well. But, you were a little nervous. Your date said he’d like to see you again, but he hasn’t called. You become convinced that he didn’t call because he sensed your nervousness and wanted nothing more to do with you. This cognitive distortion puts you in a position of relating external events to yourself. There could be many reasons your date has not called yet that are completely unrelated to you or your nervousness.

Labeling and Mislabeling

How do you see yourself? Do the challenges of PD show you how courageous you are? Or, do you let the negative consequences of your PD symptoms define your identity?

Dichotomous Thinking

Extreme, or black and white thinking, is a problem because it doesn’t allow much room for any imperfections. You may define yourself as being a success or a failure -– there is nothing in between. For example, let’s say you’re sitting in a restaurant and start to panic. You excuse yourself, go to the bathroom to regain your composure and rejoin your date a few minutes later. With black and white thinking, there’s only success and failure. Because you had a panic attack, you label yourself as having failed. You’ve forgotten about the courage it took to put yourself in the situation in the first place, and the fact that you successfully returned to the fearful setting.


Corey,Gerald. (2009). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

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