Cognitive restructuring techniques deconstruct unhelpful thoughts and rebuild them in a more balanced and accurate way.

Most people experience negative thought patterns from time to time, but sometimes these patterns become so entrenched that they interfere with relationships, achievements, and even well-being.

Cognitive restructuring is a group of therapeutic techniques that help people notice and change negative thinking patterns.

When thought patterns become destructive and self-defeating, mental health professionals can help you explore ways to interrupt and redirect them. That’s what cognitive restructuring can do.

Cognitive restructuring is at the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy, a well-studied talk therapy approach that can effectively treat many mental health conditions. These include:

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), you work with a behavior therapist to identify faulty thought patterns and practice techniques to help reshape those negative thought patterns. These mental health professionals specialize in CBT, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals.

It can be tricky to recognize inaccuracies in your thought patterns. For that reason, professionals typically recommend working with a therapist when you begin cognitive restructuring.

People sometimes experience cognitive distortions — thought patterns that create a distorted view of reality. These thought patterns often lead to depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and self-defeating behaviors.

Examples of cognitive distortions can include:

Cognitive restructuring offers an opportunity to notice these maladaptive thoughts as they occur. You can then practice reframing them in more accurate and helpful ways.

The theory is that if you can change how you look at specific events or circumstances, you may be able to change the feelings you have and actions you take.

So how exactly do you restructure a negative thought?

Although anyone can use cognitive restructuring techniques to improve their thinking habits, many people find collaborating with a behavioral therapist helpful.

A therapist can help you learn which cognitive distortions are affecting you. They can also explain how and why a thought is irrational or inaccurate.

A therapist can also help you learn how to “question” faulty thought patterns and redesign them to be more positive.

Here’s a brief guide to some of the strategies involved in cognitive restructuring:

To change an unproductive thought pattern, you have to be able to identify the error you’re making. Cognitive restructuring depends on your ability to notice the thoughts that spark negative feelings and states of mind.

It’s also helpful to notice when and where the thoughts come up. You may be more vulnerable to cognitive distortions in certain situations. Identifying those situations may help you prepare in advance.

For example, if you’re a student who has anxiety, you might notice a pattern of catastrophizing in testing environments. Maybe your pattern goes something like this: I am absolutely going to fail this test, fail the course, and not be able to graduate with everybody else. Everyone is going to know I’ve failed.

Knowing that vulnerability exists can help you catch your negative thought and change it before it gets the better of you.

Some people find journaling helpful as part of the process. Even if you aren’t initially sure what caused your anxiety or sadness, writing down your thoughts may help you recognize a cognitive distortion or pattern.

As you practice self-monitoring, you’ll likely notice distorted thought patterns more quickly.

Another essential part of cognitive restructuring involves learning to question your thoughts and assumptions, especially those that seem to get in the way of living a productive life.

A therapist can teach you to use a Socratic questioning method to determine where and how your automatic thoughts are biased or illogical.

Some questions you might ask include:

  • Is this thought based on emotion or facts?
  • What evidence is there that this thought is accurate?
  • What evidence is there that this thought isn’t accurate?
  • How could I test this belief?
  • What’s the worst that could happen? How could I respond if the worst happens?
  • What other ways could this information be interpreted?
  • Is this really a black-and-white situation, or are there shades of gray here?

If you experience catastrophizing, for example, you might tend to assume the worst possible outcome in a stressful situation. In questioning this thought pattern, you could ask yourself to list all possible outcomes. You could ask yourself how likely each possible outcome is.

Questioning allows you to consider new possibilities that aren’t as drastic as the catastrophic ones you may fear.

A key element of cognitive restructuring is gathering evidence.

You may decide to keep track of the events that trigger a response, including who you were with and what you were doing. You may want to record how strong each response is and what memories came up as a result.

You might also gather evidence for or against your thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs. Cognitive distortions are biased and inaccurate, but they can also be deeply embedded. Dislodging and replacing them requires evidence about how rational they are.

You may need to list facts that show a belief is accurate, and compare the list to facts that show the belief is distorted or just plain incorrect.

For example, if you personalize other people’s actions, you may often blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault. You might benefit from looking at evidence that indicates an action has nothing to do with you at all.

Using this strategy, you would consider the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining a certain cognitive distortion.

You could ask yourself:

  • What do you get out of calling yourself a complete idiot, for example?
  • What does this thought pattern cost you emotionally and practically speaking?
  • What are the long-term effects?
  • How does this thought pattern affect the people around you?
  • How does it advance or limit your job performance?

Seeing the pros and cons side by side can help you decide whether it’s worth changing the pattern.

Here’s a 2018 celebrity example of how cost-benefit analysis works:

In her show “Nanette,” comedian Hannah Gadsby talked about how she built a career on self-deprecating humor. But at a certain point, the harm she was doing to her sense of self outweighed the benefits to her career. So she decided to stop tearing herself down as a means of making jokes.

“Nanette” was wildly successful, in part because so many people recognize the harmful trade-offs they make every day.

Cognitive restructuring helps people find new ways of looking at the things that happen to them. Part of the practice involves coming up with alternative explanations that are rational and positive to replace the distortions that have been adopted over time.

For example, if you didn’t score as well on a test, instead of generalizing that you’re terrible at math, you might explore ways you could change your study habits. Or, you could explore some relaxation techniques you could try before your next test.

Here’s another example: If a group of colleagues stops talking when you walk into a room, instead of jumping to the conclusion that they were talking about you, you might want to consider other explanations for their actions. By doing so, you may realize that the situation had nothing to do with you, or that you misinterpreted what was going on.

Generating alternatives can also include creating positive affirmations and replacing inaccurate or unhelpful thought patterns with rational ones.

You might want to repeat to yourself that you make valuable, positive contributions at work and that your colleagues always include you in what’s going on. You can base these affirmations on a list of contributions you’ve actually made, and the positive relationships you’ve built.

Although it’s helpful to work with a therapist at first, cognitive restructuring is a method you can learn to do on your own once you know how it works.

Being able to identify and change your negative thought patterns has many benefits. For instance, it may help to:

The American Psychological Association recommends CBT to help with:

It can also help you navigate difficult transitions like divorce, a serious illness, or the loss of a loved one.

In any life situation where negative thought patterns develop, cognitive restructuring can help you challenge and change unhelpful thoughts.

Since it’s recommended that people work with a therapist, one potential drawback to cognitive restructuring might be the out-of-pocket financial cost of therapy sessions, whether in-person or online.

For some people, CBT techniques may be more effective when combined with medication.

The following includes frequently asked questions about cognitive restructuring.

What is meant by cognitive restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring refers to behavioral therapy techniques that help you identify and challenge unhelpful, inaccurate thought patterns and replace them with healthier ways of thinking.

What are the 3 Cs of cognitive restructuring?

The 3C’s of cognitive restructuring refers to a memory device that can help you remember the steps to identifying and replacing unhealthy thoughts:

  • catch it
  • check it
  • change it

What is cognitive restructuring for trauma?

Cognitive restructuring for trauma uses cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to replace destructive or harmful thinking patterns associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with constructive ones.

What is cognitive restructuring in DBT?

Cognitive restructuring in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) involves using techniques to monitor and challenge unhelpful or negative thought patterns and replace them with more productive and accurate thought patterns.

Cognitive restructuring is one of the core components of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Most of the time, cognitive restructuring is collaborative. A patient typically works with a therapist to identify faulty thought patterns and replace them with healthier, more accurate ways of looking at events and circumstances.

Cognitive restructuring can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, and it may help with a range of other mental health issues.