Lesson 3: Don’t Fall Into the Thinking Trap

brain graphic that shows a jigsaw puzzle to depict thinkingObjectives:

  1. Youth will learn to identify some of the common ‘Thinking Traps’ and stop them before they get “stuck”
  2. Youth will develop skills to help them get unstuck from their negative thoughts and develop more positive ones.

Time to Complete: 45 minutes

Level: Grades 7-12


Room Setup

Special Considerations: This topic can be difficult and overwhelming. Seeking professional help from a local counselor or other trained professional is always an encouraging option. If you or someone you know would like to talk to another teen about their mental health, please visit the Teen Line website. If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, feel they cannot reach out to someone locally and are concerned for their safety, please visit the Talk to Someone Now page (Suicide Prevention Lifeline website).

Introduction (5 minutes)

The goal of this lesson is to teach youth about cognitive distortions, commonly called “thinking traps.” Through group activities, youth will learn the characteristics of five common thinking traps, as well as how to spot positive or negative thoughts. The final activity teaches youth some common ways to untwist their thinking.

What is the Problem?

At 16.1%, Maine has the highest rate in the United States of youth ages 3-17 diagnosed with anxiety. This is nearly double the national average for youth with diagnosed anxiety.[1] Occasional anxiety over a test, or a conflict with someone, is a normal part of life. However, when that worry and fear stop you from doing daily activities such as school, work, or social interactions, it becomes a bigger problem. Anxiety can cause feelings of restlessness, fatigue, emotional outbursts, muscle tension, and sleep problems to name a few.[2] Anxiety can also change the way we think and cause us to believe things that are inaccurate and often negative.

What is a Thinking Trap? – Slide 2

Thinking traps, also called cognitive distortions, are habitual negative thought patterns. Many people experience these cognitive distortions from time to time, but if allowed to continue unchecked they could lead to further mental health disturbances such as anxiety or depression.[3] Research suggests that cognitive distortions are a coping mechanism for when people are faced with adverse/difficult life events. The more severe or prolonged the event, the more likely it is that one or more cognitive distortions will develop.[4] In the 1960s, physiatrist Aaron Beck pioneered the research on cognitive distortions and created Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to combat it. One of Beck’s colleagues, David Burns, is considered a foremost expert in making cognitive distortions easy for the public to understand and overcome. In his book The Feeling Good Handbook he outlines ten common thinking traps/cognitive distortions, as well as ways to untwist the thinking. We will discuss five of these ten cognitive distortions.[5]

Identify the Traps (12 minutes): Slides 3-7 (show after breakout groups reconvene)

  • For this activity, the youth will be broken into five groups. Each group will be assigned a Thinking Trap to research using their own devices. For 5 minutes teams will be asked to:
    • Define the trap in their own words
    • Give an example of the trap that could happen in real life
      • Example: Magnification – occurs when you maximize the importance of your problems and/or minimize your desirable qualities. “I got a D on that one biology quiz, now I don’t even know if I can get into a pre-veterinary program when I apply in a few years because they’ll see how bad I am at biology.”
  • Once each team has had a chance to understand their Thinking Trap, they will share their definition and example with the group. The presenter should discuss each trap in the order they appear on the slides and show the slides after each group presents their ideas to make sure the content aligns.
  • Question:
    1. By a show of hands, has anyone heard of thinking traps or cognitive distortions before this workshop?
    2. Now that you have a better understanding of what thinking traps are, do you recognize any of these in your own thinking or that of someone you know?

Game (10 minutes)

  • In this activity, all participants will stand in a horizontal line (shoulder to shoulder). Game cards will be read and teens will need to make a choice based on what they would choose for themselves.
  • It is very important to tell participants that they must make the choice they realistically would choose if they were in that situation. This is not about picking the ideal choice, or following what the person next to you does. This game is about understanding your own thinking patterns to begin to identify any thinking traps you may be likely to fall into.
  • Read the scenario from the game card aloud to participants. Then read aloud each choice on the game card and ask participants to choose one. Finally, read how many steps they should take based on the choice they made. How many steps they should make are in the blue badge on each choice. Each choice is also color-coded green, orange, or red based on whether it is the more positive, neutral, or negative choice.
    • After each participant has moved the appropriate amount of spaces, ask if anyone can identify which thinking trap was described, and why they think that.
  • At the conclusion of the game assess where everyone is. It is important to let everyone know that this is just an exercise and does not indicate that they are a negative or bad person if they are further back. Or the opposite, that they are very positive or good if they are at the front. It is just a way to begin to get everyone thinking about their own thoughts and patterns.
    • Discuss some of the game cards with teens:
  • Why did they choose the way they did?
  • Online Alternative: If participants are online, game scenarios can be turned into poll questions with each choice on the card being a choice on the poll. Instead of taking steps forward, participants can track their own numbers on a sheet of scrap paper or a note on their computer. The numbers may also be left out and the polls can just be used as discussion starters.

Climbing out of a Trap (15 minutes): Slides 8-10

Anyone can learn how to get out of their thinking traps. The amount of time it takes to change these patterns can depend on a variety of factors, including how long an individual has been experiencing these distortions. We recommend seeking professional help from a licensed counselor trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to further develop skills in getting oneself out of these thinking traps. However, in the meantime, there are some first steps that can be taken to help get unstuck.

Examine the Evidence (10 minutes): Slide 8

  • Examining the evidence is a way for you to challenge your negative thoughts by looking further into the statement and trying to find examples of things that prove your negative thought to be a distorted view of reality. By challenging the validity of these negative thoughts one can start to bring themselves out of a negative swirl.
  • For this activity, each participant will receive a blank Thought Tornado sheet. Each participant is asked to think about a real and negative thought they have about themselves or a situation. If that is too difficult they may think of a hypothetical situation, as the goal of the activity is to begin working on the process of ending a thought tornado spiral. There are a variety of ways to do this, these prompts are just one example of bringing oneself up out of the spiral.
  • Show slide 8 for a sample thought tornado and run through each of the prompts that participants will answer.
  • Give youth 5 minutes to fill out their tornados.
  • Ask if anyone would be willing to share some or all of their tornado. An additional way to make this exercise focus on the positive and potentially make it less scary to share is to only ask youth to share a positive trait they have or something they enjoy doing.
  • Questions:
    • Did you struggle to find answers to the prompts to take yourself out of the spiral or was it fairly easy? Why or why not?
    • Do you think this is a process you could use as is or modify to help you when you have negative thoughts? Why or Why not? If you would want it modified how would you do that?

Other Ways to Untwist Thinking and Climb Out of the Trap (5 minutes): Slide 9

  • Examining the Evidence is just one way to help oneself out of a thinking trap. Some of these other methods are useful for all thinking traps while others are more specific to particular traps.

Wrap-Up Discussion (2 Minutes)


  1. How could just identifying and recognizing these distortions be helpful to your mental well-being?
  2. Do you see yourself using some of these strategies to help yourself or a friend out of a thinking trap?

[1] Maine Children’s Alliance. 2019 Maine Kids Count (PDF)

[2] National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders Overview

[3] healthline website. What Are Cognitive Distortions and How Can You Change These Thinking Patterns?

[4] healthline website. What are the different types of cognitive distortions?

[5] healthline website. What are the different types of cognitive distortions? How to Change