Life can feel out of control when mounting stress spirals into a string of dysfunctional thoughts. It might come as a surprise, but stress-inducing thought patterns are habits. Habits can be changed. The logic-based cognitive restructuring process can eliminate stress-causing thought patterns.
What Is Cognitive Restructuring?
Cognitive restructuring (CR) is a component to the collection of psychological techniques called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CR encourages patients to engage more fully in the present moment and has been proven to help people who suffer from thought-induced stress.
CR is a process of psychological talk therapy or psychotherapy that aims to help patients first identify, then change destructive thought patterns and destructive behaviors associated with those thought patterns. Continued practice of CR improves mood while reducing anxiety and stress.
A CR session can occur in different ways. One way is a session between a patient and a psychologist. Group CR therapy occurs with a group of patients and one or more attending psychologists. Individuals may also elect to practice CR on their own without a therapist.
CR patients are encouraged to practice CR as a part of daily life. Because cognitive disorders can negatively impact nearly every aspects of life, regularly practicing CR strategies outside of a session or CR study time is a treatment requisite.
Cognitive Restructuring And The Brain
The brain is constantly thinking and throwing around thoughts, often without our conscious realization. The ability to think complex thoughts is one of the most wonderful parts of being human. The brain helps us perceive the world and interpret those perceptions.
Trust Or Don't Trust
We tend to trust the information the brain gives. After all, the brain accurately alerts us to danger, reminds us to eat and drink, and helps us navigate through the world every single day.
For individuals with distorted thinking, the brain isn’t as trustworthy of an ally. The brain isn’t intentionally deceiving anyone, but thoughts aren’t always an accurate representation of what’s going on around us.
Sometimes the brain convinces us through thoughts that there is danger or negativity in situations where there isn’t any.
Continuously perceiving danger and negativity where there isn’t any can severely deteriorate a person’s quality of life and mental health.
Thought perceptions enter the mind quickly. They may pop into the mind, feel like a flash of insight, or come in response to an emotional trigger. In CR, these fast-flying thought perceptions are called automatic thoughts.
Automatic thoughts aren’t always negative. We use automatic thoughts all the time. For example, when you are driving and see the light ahead turn yellow, an automatic thought tells you to slow down to avoid a collision. No careful contemplation was necessary in making this decision; the thought arrived automatically.
Trouble with automatic thoughts arises when people do not pay attention to these thought patterns, especially when they come in a negative form. Automatic thinking can interject false information that detrimentally impacts well-being and behavior.
CR trains patients to recognize automatic thinking as a preventive measure. Recognizing automatic thinking as it occurs in the present moment can prevent suffering.
The little “lies” delivered in a flash by automatic thinking are referred to as cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are always patterns of thoughts that are untrue or inaccurate.
There are many types of cognitive distortions. Below are examples of the most common types of cognitive distortions.
Jumping To Conclusion Bias
There are two categories in the jumping to conclusion bias cognitive distortion category: mind-reading and fortune-telling.
Mind-reading is the process of guessing what someone else in thinking or feeling and taking those guesses for facts. The guesses deemed facts in mind-reading are solidified in the mind with little or no substantiation.
Fortune Telling is a negative pattern of predicting outcomes in situations without investigating any of the facts or factors involved. Mind-reading is also adopting a rigid belief in a preordained future. Believing something is destined to fail is an example of fortune-telling in CR.
Mental filtering sifts out anything positive in a situation and allows in only what is perceived as negative. It is the repeated process of solely focusing on negative aspects of people or situations. Mental filtering may include pinpointing a passing detail of a situation and continuously thinking about it.
Polarized Thinking (Black And White Thinking)
Polarized thinking is a negative trend of labeling situations, people, places, everything in a “good” or “bad” category. It’s an all-or-nothing approach to living that doesn’t leave room for gray areas or overlaps.
Catastrophizing is a habit of believing everything is or will be a complete catastrophe. This cognitive distortion creates an ever-present worst-case scenario way of thinking.
Blaming is a destructive pattern of finding fault with everyone and everything while completely absolving the self from any wrongdoing.
Always Being Right
The always being right cognitive distortion causes people to believe their own opinions are irrefutable facts.
The cognitive distortion of overgeneralizing is the process of applying one experience to all subsequent experiences even when it does not apply at all. It’s judging a person, experience, or situation based on evidence from the past rather than real-time information.
Personalization is taking everything everyone does extremely personally. Personalization leads an individual to conclude that their unrelated actions cause others people’s behavior. Personalization is a process of self-blame and placing blame on factors outside of personal control.
Fallacy Of Change
The fallacy of change is a habitual distorted thinking pattern leading people to believe their own happiness depends on someone else's behavior changing.
Thoughts that include “should” statements are frequently cognitive distortions. “Should” statements provoke feelings of shame and guilt. “Should” statements have the same negative impact when directed inwardly as when directed and on to others.
How To Use Cognitive Restructuring To Reduce Stress
Cognitive distortions are common in the modern world and contribute to the growing rates of mental health conditions present in the population today.
Engaging in cognitive restructuring can change these destructive thought patterns to liberate the mind from false thinking. This liberation leads to improvement in every area of life. It helps facilitate better self-esteem, self-respect, and improves social connection with others.
Cognitive restructuring is a clearly defined process that helps reduce stress, ease anxiety, and create a more harmonious existence.
There are four defined steps in the cognitive restructuring process.
Identify Negative Automatic Thoughts
Stress intensifies the likelihood of recurring negative automatic thoughts. Learning to catch automatic thoughts as they arise is the first step in cognitive restructuring. Thoughts play a major role in how we perceive the world around us. They influence our feelings and how we interact with others.
Use a journal to record thoughts as much as possible throughout the day. Do not censor any of your thoughts or feelings in your journal. Journaling can help identify automatic thinking and cognitive distortion patterns.
Identify Cognitive Distortions
After writing thoughts and feelings down, return to the journal to investigate the pages for evidence of the aforementioned cognitive distortions. Look for any thoughts or thought patterns that match the cognitive distortion descriptions.
It might be difficult to find cognitive distortions at first. Stress begets stress and changing thought patterns takes time. This process becomes easier.
Remember that there are dozens of cognitive distortions, far more than could reasonably fit into an article of this size.
Scrutinize Cognitive Distortions With Socratic Questioning
After identifying cognitive distortions, it’s time to scrutinize them. Challenge the distortions with Socratic questioning to see how the perceived “facts” hold up.
Write the cognitive distortion down along with a series of logic-based questions.
There are worksheets online that can help with developing the best Socratic questions to ask for each cognitive distortion. Some example questions include:
- What evidence supports this belief?
- What evidence does not support this belief?
- Am I making any assumptions about this situation?
- Have I reached conclusions based on feelings or facts?
- What is the worst that can happen from this?
- Is there any other way to see this situation?
- Are there any actions I can take to change the situation?
Restate Original Beliefs More Accurately
Once you have scrutinized cognitive distortions against Socratic questions, it’s time to reshape the belief in your mind. Reshaping the belief is done by restating and rewriting the original thought in a way that is based on factual evidence.
Do not skip the restating process no matter how strange it feels at first. It is an important step toward changing how the mind interprets information.
The more you practice cognitive restructuring, the easier it becomes. After time, you will automatically catch negative thoughts and begin to scrutinize them; however, this will take practice. Go easy on yourself and know you are making progress toward removing stress from your life.
Cognitive restructuring is a hands-on, evidence-based psychological method proven to reduce stress, treat anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.
Cognitive restructuring liberates the mind from harmful cognitive distortions. By following the simple CR process of first noticing automatic thoughts and subsequently changing destructive thinking patterns, we are rewarded with a new outlook on life. A new outlook—or new perception changes the world from the inside out.