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 their negative thinking patterns.
When thought patterns become destructive and self-defeating, it’s a good idea to 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 be effective at treating many mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders.
In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a patient and therapist work together to identify faulty thought patterns that are contributing to a problem and practice techniques to help reshape negative thought patterns.
It can be tricky to recognize inaccuracies in your own thought patterns. For that reason, most professionals recommend that you work with a therapist when you begin cognitive restructuring.
As the name suggests, cognitive restructuring techniques deconstruct unhelpful thoughts and rebuild them in a more balanced and accurate way.
People sometimes experience cognitive distortions — thought patterns that create a distorted, unhealthy view of reality. Cognitive distortions often lead to depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and self-defeating behaviors.
Some examples of cognitive distortions include:
- black-and-white thinking
Cognitive restructuring offers an opportunity to notice these maladaptive thoughts as they’re occurring. You can then practice reframing these thoughts in more accurate and helpful ways.
The theory is that if you can change how you look at certain events or circumstances, you may be able to change the feelings you have and the 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 it helpful to collaborate with a therapist.
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 so they’re 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 useful to notice when and where the thoughts come up. It may be that you’re more vulnerable to cognitive distortions in certain situations. Knowing what those situations are may help you prepare in advance.
For example, if you’re a student who has trouble with 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, and 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 it helpful to journal as part of the process. Even if you aren’t sure at first what’s 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 start noticing distorted thought patterns more quickly.
Another essential part of cognitive restructuring is learning how 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 how to use a Socratic questioning method to find out 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 grey here?
If you’re experiencing the cognitive distortion called 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 recent celebrity example of how a 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 stop 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 to replace inaccurate or unhelpful thought patterns.
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:
- lower your stress and alleviate anxiety
- strengthen your communication skills and build healthier relationships
- replace unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance use
- rebuild self-confidence and self-esteem
The American Psychological Association recommends CBT to help with:
- eating disorders
- substance use disorder
- mental illness
- marital problems
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.
Doctors at Mayo Clinic note that in some cases CBT techniques may be most effective when combined with medication.
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.