Cognitive restructuring is one of the most effective approaches for treating anxiety and other mental health disorders.
Sometimes called cognitive reframing, cognitive restructuring is a tool that helps people identify and understand thoughts they have that are unproductive and unhelpful. Once they recognize the cognitive distortions that aren’t working, they can replace the unhelpful thoughts with more productive thoughts. Simply put, it is our ability to shape the meaning we hold about the circumstances and situations that happen to us turning them from paralyzing events to challenges and opportunities for growth.
Cognitive re-structuring is the supreme tool of executive coaches and high performance sports coaches, as well as counselling professionals who specialize in treating anxiety and depression.
Many people brush aside cognitive distortions within a few minutes after they enter the brain. But some people struggle with these ineffective thoughts. They interfere with their happiness, their personal growth, and their ability to function. In these cases, cognitive restructuring becomes a superpower because it allows one to overcome what’s hampering them.
According to Melissa Welby, MD “Cognitive restructuring techniques are tools to help break down these thoughts and analyze them using a series of questions…. Once recognized, you can reduce anticipatory anxiety by changing thoughts and interrupting projections.”
How Does Cognitive Restructuring Work?
Cognitive restructuring is based on the premise that changing your negative automatic thoughts into positive ones influences how you feel and ultimately, your behavior.
It can be used in conjunction with therapy or you can try it on your own. Practitioners should keep in mind that cognitive restructuring is an ongoing process that feels more natural with time. It takes practice. You’ll need to first notice your distorted thoughts, navigate your way through them, and replace them with rational, positive thoughts.
The easiest way to do this is by using a step-by-step approach. For example:
Step 1: Identify Distorted Automatic Thoughts
The easiest way to identify the thoughts that are affecting you negatively is to keep a journal of those thoughts. Write down what they are, when they occur, and what triggered them. This allows you to see if there is a pattern. For instance, some people tend to struggle with distorted thinking only in certain situations. They are fine with friends and family but catastrophize work situations.
Step 2: Identify What Part of the Thought is Distorted
Most distorted thoughts have at least some slight basis in reality. For example, an event could occur, but it’s highly unlikely that it will. Or there might be a tendency to engage in black-and-white thinking. Something that happened is interpreted as something that always occurs.
Examples of distortions in thought patterns include:
- Jumping to conclusions
- Disqualifying the positive
- Emotional reasoning
It’s important to recognize that none of these patterns is helpful. People who have practiced them for years might find comfort in them, but they aren’t effective. Learning to recognize them for what they are and working to restructure them leads to a happier, healthier frame of mind.
Step 3: Dispute Your Distorted Thoughts
Now that you’ve identified your ineffective thoughts and patterns of when they occur, you can begin to combat them. Do this by asking yourself one or more of the following questions:
- Is what I’m thinking about this situation accurate?
- Is my thought based on facts or feelings?
- Is there any factual evidence to support my thought?
- Could I be misinterpreting any evidence?
- Have I underestimated my ability to cope with the situation?
- What’s the worst that could happen if my distorted thought occurs?
- Can I influence the situation?
- Am I seeing things in black-and-white when it’s not that simple?
Step 4: Replace Distorted Thoughts
Now that you better understand what’s going on, you can work on changing it. You do this by replacing a distorted thought with a productive thought. Every situation is different, but you can usually use the answers to the questions above to help you create a productive replacement thought.
For example, if you initially think “My boss always gets upset with me when I ask a question,” you can instead think “One time, my boss got upset for asking a question, but that’s usually not the case. I’m going to continue asking questions when needed and if I sense he or she is upset, I’ll not take it personally and ask about the issue.”
Practice Makes Perfect
It’s uncomfortable for some people to think this deeply about thinking. The process requires analysis of your thoughts throughout the day. Eventually, you get better at spotting a distorted thought when it automatically pops into your mind. And over time, that leads to those thoughts occurring less frequently. But initially, you’re going to be stopping yourself often, reflecting on a thought and the circumstances that triggered it, and applying the practice of restructuring the thought.
Nobody should assume the process of cognitive restructuring will be easy. It involves recognizing and breaking habits, and it can feel uncomfortable for a while. But it does get easier with practice. Don’t give up if it’s awkward or it doesn’t work at first.