We’ve all fallen into the pattern of unhelpful thinking and dysfunctional beliefs at some point. While it is normal to have these thoughts occasionally, it can do more harm than good when it becomes an automatically occurring bad habit. But with practice, effort, and the help of techniques such as cognitive restructuring, you can be more aware of what is happening in your mind and change how you think for the better.
Here, we’ll talk about what cognitive restructuring is as well as some examples, steps, techniques, and commonly asked questions so you can gain a better understanding of it.
What is Cognitive Restructuring?
Cognitive restructuring refers to techniques that allow individuals to restructure or change their beliefs and thinking patterns. The aim of cognitive restructuring is to lessen the impact of unhelpful thinking patterns on one’s well-being.
To easily remember the steps in doing cognitive restructuring, we can use the 3 C’s: catch it, check it, and change it. This allows individuals to identify and replace unhealthy thoughts using this technique.
Cognitive restructuring is at the core of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of talk therapy that helps individuals understand how their thoughts and feelings impact their behaviors, and it can treat a wide range of mental health conditions and disorders, including depression, anxiety, and substance use. CBT falls under a broader category of cognitive restructuring that focuses on mental health treatment. However, it is important to note that cognitive restructuring is not limited to treating only mental health conditions but can be used for general improvement and other concerns.
The goal of cognitive restructuring is to encourage a person to think in a more balanced and realistic way. It is not a way to simply make people think positively. Cognitive restructuring should help individuals think differently about various things, from relationship problems to low self-esteem and handling their stress.
How Does Cognitive Restructuring Work?
Cognitive restructuring works by identifying maladaptive patterns in thinking and changing them to be more effective. This may involve restructuring one’s thinking to trigger less negative emotions and encourage more useful behavior. It is rooted in the idea that if you can change how you view certain events or situations, you can also change your feelings, behavior, and actions.
Cognitive restructuring also builds on a person’s ability to identify automatic thoughts and feelings. It also helps individuals by allowing them to recognize inaccuracies in thought patterns. However, mastering these skills can be difficult initially, so it is typically recommended that you work with a therapist when you begin cognitive restructuring.
What is Cognitive Restructuring Used For?
Cognitive restructuring can be used to change cognitive distortions, which are thought patterns that create distorted views of reality. Cognitive distortions can often lead to mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. They can also result in relationship problems and self-defeating behaviors. Some examples of cognitive distortions include black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, overgeneralization, and personalization.
Cognitive restructuring allows you to notice these maladaptive thoughts and then learn how to frame them more accurate and helpful ways.
Given this, cognitive restructuring can be used for a number of situations, including the following:
- Low self-esteem
- Eating disorders
- Relationship issues
- Substance use disorders
This technique can also help you navigate difficult transitions or changes in life, such as dealing with a divorce, serious illness, or the loss of a loved one.
Any life situations where negative thought patterns develop can benefit from cognitive restructuring so you can challenge and change any unhelpful thoughts.
Benefits of Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring has several benefits, including the following:
- Increase confidence and self-esteem
- Reduce anxiety and stress
- Improve communication skills
- Build healthier relationships
- Replace unhealthy coping mechanisms
Examples of Cognitive Restructuring
To better understand cognitive restructuring, it helps to look at a few examples.
Example 1. Imagine that you are in a situation where your friends have gone out without inviting you. You may automatically think that your friends do not like you and that something must be wrong with you. Such thoughts can cause feelings of loneliness, rejection, and sadness.
It is helpful to consider evidence that supports and does not support your thoughts. On the one hand, you may acknowledge that you often get moody, which may be why your friends did not invite you. However, you also know that you have been invited to many get-togethers before, and your friends have openly expressed enjoying spending time with you. Another piece of evidence that may not support your thoughts is that another close friend was also not invited.
You could form an alternative thought that you are still on good terms with your friends and that they do like you, but it does not mean you have to be invited to everything that goes on. This new restructured line of thinking leads to no longer feeling worried.
Example 2. Imagine that you met with your boss and they had many comments about your work. You may think they don’t like your work, that you’ll never finish your project, and that you’ll never have a good career. This can lead to feelings of stress and frustration.
There is evidence that supports your thoughts, especially since your supervisor’s comments were valid. However, evidence doesn’t support this thought, specifically that you have received many comments on your past deliverables and have used the critique to improve your work. Your boss has also been supportive in the past. Perhaps this will not be the only time you will fall short.
A more balanced thought would be that your boss's comments will help improve your work. Both your boss and the company do not want you to fail. The outcome is that you feel more hopeful, encouraged, and determined to do a better job.
Steps Involved in Cognitive Restructuring
There are three steps involved in cognitive restructuring. Let’s go through each of them in detail:
Step 1: Identifying Negative Thoughts
The first step involved in cognitive restructuring is the identification of negative thoughts.
You may notice that a certain thought keeps recurring after difficult situations, even if you attempt to ignore it. For example, you may think, “I’m such an idiot, and I’ll never amount to anything” quite often.
In this case, you can explore these repetitive thoughts and feelings. While it is better to do this with a professional such as a therapist, you can also work independently and start by bringing attention to these negative thoughts. Once you have identified the negative automatic thought, you can identify what type of cognitive distortion is being made. It can be catastrophizing, labeling, overgeneralizing, or others. When you label your thoughts this way, you start to see patterns.
Step 2: Challenging Negative Thoughts
Challenging negative thoughts is one of the more difficult parts of this process, especially if you aren’t working with a professional. This step involves looking for objective facts, situations, or statements that dispute your negative thoughts and cognitive distortions.
You may tell yourself that if the negative thought exists, then you can turn that negative thought into a positive one. Explore realities or outcomes that differ from negative thoughts and consider other possible factors. Going back to the second example above, the individual who received criticisms from their boss was able to challenge negative thoughts of never succeeding at work by finding evidence that both supported and challenged their negative thinking.
Step 3: Replacing Negative Thoughts
Once you have found evidence supporting and countering your negative thoughts, it is time to replace them.
If you initially found yourself thinking something like, “They are all certain that I am incompetent,” do the exercise of identifying and challenging your thoughts. You can then replace it with something like, “I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I can see that they’re taking my perspective and work seriously, which shows that they think I am competent.”
This step of cognitive restructuring can be challenging. However, replacing your thoughts can help stop the vicious cycle and pattern of automatic negative thoughts and beliefs about your feelings and behavior.
Cognitive Restructuring Techniques and Exercises
There are various techniques and exercises that you can use to practice cognitive restructuring.
Role Playing and Behavioral Experiments
To role-play cognitive restructuring, your therapist can act as the other person or situation, and you will act as yourself. You are encouraged to respond in such a way that challenges your automatic negative thought patterns and behaviors.
CBT Worksheets and Tools
Tools such as CBT worksheets, posters, and prompts can also train your mind to identify negative thoughts, challenge them, and eventually replace them with more objective and productive thoughts.
Guided Imagery and Mindfulness
Guided imagery and mindfulness can help people be more attuned to their emotions, so identifying negative thoughts and feelings as they arise is easier. It can also reduce the overall number of negative thoughts. When used in therapy, imagery can give clients unique access to their cognitive structures, enabling them to engage in ways that verbal and analytical techniques cannot [*].
Research has shown that writing in a journal effectively reduces the risk of depression in young adults [*]. And since negative thoughts often accompany depression, getting them down on paper can allow you to process them in a more non-emotional and analytical way. This allows you to respond to them more objectively and to turn them into more productive thoughts and behaviors.
Potential Risks of Cognitive Restructuring
Generally, there are few risks in doing cognitive restructuring as part of CBT. The process may make you feel emotionally uncomfortable at times, but that is because this technique involves exploring painful feelings, emotions, and experiences. You may cry or get upset during challenging sessions; you may also feel physically exhausted. It may also cause temporary stress or anxiety.
Other risks may include getting caught up in negative thoughts. Some people may spiral further into negative thinking rather than being able to identify, challenge, and replace those thoughts.
Others may also resort to toxic positivity instead of going through the process of identifying, challenging, and replacing negative thoughts with more balanced ones.
Working with a skilled and licensed professional will minimize any risks. They can guide you through the process of cognitive restructuring and help you manage your negative thoughts and feelings.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to see results from cognitive restructuring?
It is different for everyone. While some people may see results only after two sessions, others require a few months to learn how to manage their negative thoughts.
What are some practical tips for incorporating cognitive restructuring into my daily life?
Visual prompts such as posters can help remind you to check in with your thoughts, especially if you have negative ones too often. You can also set reminders on your phone to do this. Keeping a mood journal is another way, but you can also have an accountability buddy that you can share your thoughts and feelings with if you work better socially. These tips will help you get started with identifying negative thoughts, which will naturally lead into the next step of challenging them.
Can cognitive restructuring be combined with other therapeutic approaches?
Yes, cognitive restructuring and CBT are often combined with other therapeutic approaches, such as interpersonal therapy.
The Bottom Line
It can be challenging and even harmful to harbor negative attitudes and beliefs. Remember that this is a problem shared by others, and assistance is there for you when you need it. You can learn how to deal with these thoughts by contacting a skilled mental health practitioner. If cognitive restructuring is used alone, it could be more challenging for someone to recognize their own biases. Additionally, some disorders, like PTSD, may require more specialist care for the patient. You can consider getting therapy and using tools such as CBT worksheets if you struggle with cognitive restructuring strategies alone.
- Edwards D. Cognitive restructuring through guided imagery: lessons from Gestalt Therapy. June 1989.
- Stice E, Burton E, Bearman S, et al. Randomized trial of a brief depression prevention program: an elusive search for a psychosocial placebo control condition. 27 September 2006.