top of page

Irrational Thoughts: What are They?


Irrational thoughts are a fundamental concept in CBT and are at the core of the therapy. They are negative, distorted beliefs or thoughts based on the information that you have gathered throughout your lifetime. These thoughts form automatically in your brain almost without conscious thought. Because of this, they are also known as cognitive distortions or automatic thoughts.

From a psychological perspective, irrational thoughts are not based on evidence or logic. They operate mostly on assumptions and are rooted in beliefs based on past experiences — positive or negative. So things you have learned in school, your religious institution, heard about on TV, watched in a movie, talked about with your friends, read in a book, or watched on YouTube can all be incorporated into these types of thoughts. But because they are your thoughts coming out of your brain, for the most part, you just accept them to be true.

Irrational thoughts are neither good nor bad! They just are. They can cause you problems though.

How Irrational Thoughts Can Cause You Problems

Since we just assume that these thoughts are true, we base our following behaviors on them as if they were absolute facts. This can cause anxiety, anger, miscommunication, lowered self-esteem and self-worth, phobias, depression, or health fears. Because of this, relationships can suffer due to unnecessary conflict. Consider some examples:

Mary has the thought “John, my husband, is cheating on me! He doesn’t want to go out anymore and stays at work later and later”. Because she believes these thoughts to be true, she becomes angry and resentful and begins to treat her husband differently. John is confused and doesn’t know what he did wrong. He’s already stressed enough because his new boss at work is putting all kinds of new demands on him and he’s having to work later and later to protect his position at work. He’s worried he might lose his job, and now he’s worried about what’s happening at home with his wife! If he loses his job, will Mary leave him and take the kids? Then he’ll be homeless and without his family's love!

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Joel has noticed that he has this twitching sensation in his chest sometimes. The more he thinks about it, the more often it happens. He thinks to himself, “What is going on?!? I must be having a heart attack!” He’s been worrying about this constantly and notices that the monitor on his watch now shows his heart rate is higher.

Jessica was invited to a party for her friend’s birthday. She wants to go, but when she thinks about all the people that will be there, she just can’t help thinking that everyone is talking about her. “I just know everyone thinks I’m so ugly & stupid and that my boyfriend could do so much better!” Whenever she starts thinking about going to the party, she becomes so anxious that she decides to stay home instead.

Hannah made a mistake in a report at work that she shared with half the organization including her boss and her bosses boss. Now she has been thinking to herself, “I am just horrible at this! I don’t know why they keep me in this job! There are so many people who could do it better!” Because she is left feeling so insecure about her job performance, she calls in sick the next day and misses an important deadline on an important account.

Cognitive Distortions

All of the people involved in these examples are having irrational thoughts, Mary, Joel, Jessica, Hannah, and even John. Did you catch them all? If you forgot about the 10 most common cognitive distortions and what they are, you can refer back to this post on them here.

Mary is engaging in Jumping to Conclusions- mind reading.

Joel is engaging in magnification

Jessica is mindreading again

Hannah is disqualifying the positive

John is also catastrophizing or using magnification

Practice Makes Perfect!


The thing about irrational thoughts that makes them so insidious and hard to change is that they become habitual. We practice them A LOT, and the more we practice them, the more a part of us they become. Think of it this way, if every day after you woke up, someone would come into your room and tell you that the sky is red, at some point wouldn’t you start to believe it? Day after day hearing the same thing, “the sky is red”, you would most like begin to doubt yourself and start to believe that person! Well, you tell yourself these irrational thoughts multiple times a day, day after day, for years. Of course, you believe them. And of course, they become deeply ingrained, making them difficult to change. But not impossible!

Changing our Irrational Thoughts

CBT has developed many different techniques to overcome these irrational thoughts, and research shows us that they work! The first step, as with most change, is to become aware of the problem. Using the list of the most common cognitive distortions, try to notice when you are having these types of thoughts. The easiest way to do so is when you become anxious or angry or act out, think back to what thoughts you were having right before that feeling started. If you do this regularly, you should become pretty good at noticing your negative thoughts. Once you’ve accomplished this, you can start to reframe your thoughts. This is just a fancy way of saying you can change or rewrite your thoughts into something more positive or coping. For example, if the thought that you noticed was “I should be working out more”, you could reframe this as “I would like to go to the gym more often”. This new thought takes the judgment out of your thought, allowing you to release the guilt.

There are many other techniques available if reframing doesn’t work for you. But first, remember that these thoughts are pretty deeply ingrained by now and so lots of repetition and practice will be needed for them to significantly change!

Closing thoughts

cognitive behaviorl therapy

Irrational beliefs are something that we all have, and it is possible to change them. Remember persistence and repetition are crucial so don’t give up if change doesn’t happen right away.

If you have any questions about this topic or would like to work on your irrational thoughts or learn more about CBT therapy, I would love to talk with you further. Please follow the link!


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page