Anyone can improve their thinking habits, especially people who are dealing with trauma, anxiety, anger management issues, and PTSD.
The key is to recognize these negative thought patterns and their triggers so you can do something about them.
This article shows you the steps of cognitive behavioral therapy that will help you develop a positive thinking habit and downloadable CBT resources to support you (or a child or teen) along the way.
What is CBT?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy or talk therapy that focuses on addressing a person’s current problems so they can function well and be more productive. CBT does that by identifying destructive thoughts and using strategies to turn these thoughts into positive ones[*].
For example, instead of “Why can’t I succeed?” you can think of something better and more realistic like, “I can do anything I set my mind to” or “I deserve the best things in life.”
CBT is suitable for children, adolescents, and adults, and effectively treats various mental health conditions. It also helps manage chronic pain (by changing the way patients view their pain) and supports people who are constantly stressed.
CBT Steps to Change Your Thoughts
We all experience negative thoughts from time to time, leading us to believe things about ourselves and others that aren’t exactly true.
Research shows that these wrong thoughts develop from difficult life experiences and may lead to depression, disruptive behavior, and other problems[*].
This is why it’s important to notice the quality of our thoughts. If you need help, use the cognitive behavioral therapy steps below along with some of our worksheets.
Step 1: Identify a situation that has triggered your negative thinking.
Different situations can cause you to think negatively. It could be watching the news, meeting new people, changes in your usual routine, a loved one getting sick, or the way someone responded to you.
Keep in mind that triggers can vary from person to person and some people may even have multiple triggers. Additionally, some triggers tend to have a greater effect on a person. For example, roller coaster rides make John feel just a little anxious while an upcoming quiz makes him extremely anxious.
Our anxiety triggers worksheet shows you a list of various triggers. Rating each trigger on a scale of 1-10 will help you understand how they’re affecting you.
Step 2: Take note of those unhelpful thoughts.
Based on John’s extreme anxiety regarding quizzes in the example above, his negative thoughts could be:
- “I suck at school.”
- “I’m disappointed in myself.”
- “What’s wrong with me?”
- “This always happens to me.”
Writing down these thoughts when they arise allows you to capture them. Then, you’ll be able to examine whether they’re accurate or biased.
You can use a thought record for this — it could be a simple sheet of paper or notebook where you note down the following:
- Situation: What triggered the negative thought, including the date, time, place, and who you were with.
- Automatic thoughts: What you immediately thought when you got triggered or what that situation meant for you. You can also rate the intensity of these thoughts.
- Feelings: These feelings may include guilt, shame, sadness, helplessness, and bodily sensations. Note that for a kid or teen, anxiety may manifest through symptoms like butterflies in their stomach, tiredness, and back aches.
Step 3: Challenge these thoughts and replace them with more helpful ones.
The hard part about our thoughts is that they often seem convincing. This is why we should do a reality check. Pause and ask yourself questions like:
- “Is this based on reality?”
- “Is there any evidence that what I’m thinking is true?”
- “Am I simply coming to negative conclusions?”
Furthermore, consider seeking alternative explanations. In other words, try looking at the situation differently. Going back to John’s situation, he’ll benefit from these thoughts that are more helpful:
- “I can prepare for the quiz.”
- “It is enough to do my best.”
- “Today I choose to think positive.”
John can also practice coping skills and strategies to manage test anxiety, such as positive self-talk and taking deep breaths.
Step 4: Notice the feelings that result from thinking of alternatives.
Challenging negative thought patterns and generating alternative thoughts can lower anxiety and stress levels, and boost your feeling of self-worth.
If you notice yourself feeling better, write it down in your CBT thought record or diary. In John’s situation, he could write something like, “I feel hopeful now that I know I can do something to feel less anxious about quizzes.”
Step 5: Keep practicing until positive thinking becomes automatic.
Make a habit of stopping negative thoughts as they occur. Remember that it takes more than thinking positively to shift your mindset, which is why you’ll benefit from other coping strategies like grounding and positive affirmations.
Grounding interrupts the cycle of negative thinking by redirecting your thoughts to the present. Examples are counting backwards and identifying things you see and hear. We provide a handout that summarizes grounding techniques for kids and teens.
Positive affirmations, on the other hand, are short positive statements that remind you of good things. A simple affirmation could be something like, “I don’t need to be perfect” or “I treat myself gently.” Here’s a PDF with daily affirmations to counter negative thoughts.
Changing Your Thoughts Can Change Your Life
Follow these steps of CBT to help with stress and other mental health issues, starting with the identification of faulty thought patterns. Now that you’ve discovered them, it’s time to put them into action.
As always, reach out to a mental health professional if you or someone you know needs help cultivating a positive mindset.
For more CBT resources, check out our CBT worksheets. Our worksheets provide visual and written engagement to support different modalities of learning, which can enhance traditional talk or play therapy.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. 2016 September 08
- Panourgia C et al. Do cognitive distortions explain the longitudinal relationship between life adversity and emotional and behavioural problems in secondary school children? 2017 February 15