Cognitive restructuring is a psychological method for transforming how individuals think. It can help them feel differently about negative things, ultimately influencing their behavior.
Cognitive restructuring is vital to various psychotherapy approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It involves recognizing and disputing negative beliefs to improve them ultimately.
Through cognitive restructuring, individuals can quickly and successfully manage stress levels, further their career goals, or even improve their sleep quality without professional guidance.
For example, someone may have a negative belief that they will fail in any job interview. However, cognitive restructuring could turn the thought into “I am capable of doing well in this job interview. I just need to prepare thoroughly”.
So, cognitive restructuring is a form of therapy that helps individuals understand and modify their thinking patterns to feel more in control and better able to cope with life’s challenges.
10 Examples of Cognitive Restructuring
- “Socratic Questioning:” This well-regarded technique involves posing deep philosophical questions to challenge your beliefs and thoughts. For example, by asking yourself, “What evidence supports my belief?” or “How might another person view this situation differently?” you can analyze your thought patterns and make necessary adjustments.
- Thought recording: This approach involves jotting down your ideas, helping you identify recurring patterns, and detecting irrational or negative beliefs. Through thought recording, you can actively address these negative thoughts and work towards fostering positive thinking.
- Examining the evidence: This method prompts you to scrutinize negative thoughts by assessing the supporting and contradicting evidence. For instance, if you believe, “I don’t have any friends,” consider the evidence that challenges this notion.
- Weighing pros and cons: Drafting lists that detail the advantages and disadvantages of a specific situation allows you to evaluate it from multiple angles, providing a greater perspective and enabling more informed decision-making.
- Decatastrophizing: People who fall victim to mental filtering will have a strong negativity bias. Bit by objectively analyzing a situation, identifying the worst-case scenario, and evaluating its probability, this technique helps you reframe your thoughts and gain better control over the situation.
- Reattribution: Investigating an event from various perspectives provides insight into its occurrence without blaming yourself. This healthier approach to accepting responsibility cultivates self-compassion.
- Cognitive rehearsal: Envisioning yourself successfully navigating a situation with a positive outcome prepares you for future challenges. This mental rehearsal bolsters confidence and reinforces effective coping strategies.
- Guided imagery: Imagine yourself in a serene setting, allowing stress to dissipate and positivity to flourish. This relaxation technique benefits your overall well-being by replacing pessimistic thoughts with optimistic ones.
- Listing rational alternatives: Identifying diverse interpretations or explanations for events can help challenge your initial reactions. In difficult situations, consider logical options and respond accordingly. For example, instead of reacting angrily, take a deep breath and calmly assess the situation.
- Reframing: Like reattribution, reframing emphasizes evaluating an event from various perspectives to gain insight and understanding. By embracing different viewpoints, you can avoid assigning blame solely to yourself or viewing the event as an insurmountable obstacle.
Overview of Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring, also referred to as cognitive reframing, is a method inspired by cognitive therapy that can aid individuals in perceiving, debating, and transforming thought patterns and beliefs that provoke stress.
This process aims to help people substitute their anxiety-causing thought habits with more precise and less limiting (and, thus, less stress-provoking) thinking patterns (Mueser et al., 2015).
Crum (2021) states that:
“cognitive restructuring refers to the aim and process of an intervention to supplant dysfunctional cognitions with more adaptive ones, and the predominate means by which to facilitate this cognitive change are verbal intervention strategies” (p. 3).
Cognitive restructuring is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected. So, by changing one of them, we can influence the others.
Mueser and colleagues (2015) believe that:
“cognitive restructuring is taught as a self-management skill for dealing with negative feelings through the articulation of specific thoughts that underlie the distressing feeling and the objective evaluation of evidence supporting those thoughts” (p. 506).
When the pessimistic thoughts of “I’m never going to make it” or “I am not good enough” start ruling your mind, it can take a toll on your mental health and provoke anguish or despair.
Cognitive restructuring helps them recognize and challenge these thoughts and replace them with positive ones like, “I can succeed if I try” or “I’m capable of great things.”
Cognitive restructuring simply means reframing our negative thoughts and beliefs to create more positive, empowering experiences.
Cognitive Distortions and Fallacies Targeted for Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring techniques are used to target various cognitive distortions or fallacies. From all-or-nothing thinking to personalization, each can lead to negative thoughts and emotions.
Here is a brief explanation of some of the most common cognitive distortions:
- All-or-nothing thinking: With this kind of thinking, you perceive events as either black or white and don’t allow for shades of gray. For example, if you don’t get the desired job, you might think, “I’m a total failure.”
- Disqualifying the positive: This cognitive distortion happens when you discount and ignore any positives in your thinking. For example, you may have done well on a test. But instead of feeling proud of yourself, you immediately dismiss the accomplishment and think, “I could have done better” or “It was just luck.”
- Mental filtering: This distortion occurs when you over-focus on negative details and filter out anything positive. So, suppose someone compliments you on something instead of accepting it. In that case, you focus only on the criticism they gave and ignore the praise entirely.
- Jumping to conclusions: This distortion involves making assumptions without any evidence to back them up. For example, if a friend doesn’t respond to your message, you might conclude that they are mad at you even though there is no evidence that this is true.
- Catastrophizing: This widespread distortion involves thinking about a situation as far worse than it is. Suppose your job interview doesn’t go as planned. Instead of thinking that maybe you didn’t do as well as expected but will still get an offer, you might imagine your chances of getting hired are zero.
- Emotional reasoning: This cognitive distortion occurs when you take your feelings as fact. For example, if you feel like a failure, you might assume it is true even if no evidence supports it.
- Personalization: This cognitive distortion often occurs when people feel responsible for events beyond their control or blame themselves for issues outside their power. For example, if you unexpectedly fail a test, instead of considering that the material may have been too difficult or that the professor was unclear with instructions, you may think, “It’s all my fault.”
Five Steps in Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is a psychological five-step process that helps people to identify and challenge their negative thinking patterns (Lahey, 2012).
From identifying the negative thought to developing an action plan, these five steps can help you challenge your cognitive fallacies.
Here is a brief explanation of each step:
- Identify the negative thought: The first step in cognitive restructuring includes recognizing negative thoughts disrupting your life. For example, you can write them down or keep a thought log to track them over time.
- Challenge the thought: After identifying your negative thought, you can challenge it by questioning its validity and seeking evidence that either supports or refutes it. For example, you can do it through Socratic questioning or examining different situation perspectives.
- Evaluate alternative beliefs: Once you have challenged the initial thought, you should consider alternative ones. You can make a pros and cons list, look for context clues, or even consider different interpretations of the specific event, which might lead you to different conclusions.
- Develop new coping strategies: If you’ve identified and challenged the initial belief and have explored alternative ideas, it is time to create new coping strategies. These may include challenging your thoughts, reframing situations, or even engaging in positive self-talk.
- Practice self-compassion: Lastly, when you’ve gone through the process of cognitive restructuring, it is essential to practice self-compassion. This practice will help you explore and accept setbacks and learn from mistakes or misperceptions. In such a way, you can build self-confidence and resilience (Lahey, 2012).
Critique of Cognitive Restructuring
While cognitive restructuring may provide a valuable strategy for challenging and reframing negative thoughts, this approach has certain drawbacks, such as oversimplification or failure to consider individual differences.
Though cognitive restructuring may seem simple, some researchers have disputed it due to its lack of consideration for the individual nuances of emotions and lived experiences (Lox et al., 2019).
Moreover, fixating on negative thoughts can be dangerous as it may set off a series of further pessimistic reflections.
Therefore, although cognitive restructuring can help challenge and reframe negative thinking patterns, it should not be considered a one-size-fits-all solution.
Cognitive restructuring can be a valuable technique for challenging and reframing negative thoughts. In addition, it can help people identify their negative thought patterns and develop new coping strategies.
Cognitive restructuring can be immensely beneficial for those with a pessimistic worldview. Still, it is vital to note that this strategy might not work perfectly for everyone.
For instance, if you are experiencing depression or anxiety that is difficult to manage on your own, cognitive restructuring may not be an effective solution.
Instead, contacting a mental health professional for personalized advice is best.
Cognitive restructuring can be a helpful tool when it comes to grappling with and adjusting to negative thoughts.
However, it’s necessary to remember that this is not a universal solution and should ideally be used alongside other treatments for the best outcomes.
Crum, J. (2021). Understanding mental health and cognitive restructuring with ecological neuroscience. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.697095
Lahey, B. (2012). Advances in clinical child psychology. Springer Science & Business Media.
Lox, C., Kathleen, A., Gainforth, H., & Petruzzello, S. J. (2019). The psychology of exercise: Integrating theory and practice. Routledge, New York: Taylor & Francis.
Mueser, K. T., Gottlieb, J. D., Xie, H., Lu, W., Yanos, P. T., Rosenberg, S. D., Silverstein, S. M., Duva, S. M., Minsky, S., Wolfe, R. S., & McHugo, G. J. (2015). Evaluation of cognitive restructuring for post-traumatic stress disorder in people with severe mental illness. British Journal of Psychiatry, 206(6), 501–508. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.114.147926