What is Cognitive Restructuring?
Cognitive Restructuring is a fundamental component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and refers to our ability to assess and challenge automatic negative thoughts that contribute to heightened distress.
Not to be mistaken with simply “thinking positively,” when done effectively, this skill allows us to cope with our stressors by balancing our thoughts in realistic, believable, and ultimately more helpful ways.
Cognitive restructuring consists of 3 crucial steps:
1) Building awareness of our automatic negative thoughts.
2) Systematically evaluating these thoughts.
3) Challenging and replacing them.
In this post, we focus on Step 2, read part 1 here.
How do I know I need to do this?
If you find yourself feeling depressed or anxious much of the time over a prolonged period (2 or more weeks) or you find yourself facing the same obstacles or stressors over and over again, it might be time to consider CBT. Cognitive restructuring does not mean that you are “wrong” or that your distress is “all in your head.”
Within the CBT framework, our thoughts are symptomatic of the real problems we face and the very real distress that we feel that can fog our view of often complex stressors. Cognitive restructuring can help us change our thinking to be more balanced, allowing us to cope more effectively with our biggest challenges.
Step 2: Evaluating our Thoughts
Once we have a good idea of what our most challenging automatic negative thoughts are, when they are happening, and what happens as a result of these thoughts (Step 1), we can begin to organize and evaluate. Generally, there are thought to be ten types of cognitive distortions that work to maintain distress.
One such type of cognitive distortions is “all-or-nothing thinking” or the belief that things are all good or all bad, with no in-between (e.g. “I am a bad friend.”). Most things in life are not “black and white.”
If we recognize a thought as being “all-or-nothing,” we can be cued into searching for a potential middle ground or grey area (e.g. “What have I done to make me a “bad” friend?
Are there any instances of me being a “good” friend? Is it possible that there is an in-between?) While a full discussion of each of the cognitive distortions is beyond the scope of this post, we can see how categorizing our thoughts into types of cognitive distortions can help us be more targeted and effective in shifting our most challenging negative thoughts.
It is important to note that this step of the process is critical to the success of restructuring our negative thoughts. By categorizing our automatic negative thoughts into the types of cognitive distortions, we can feel more confident that our efforts to shift our thoughts will result in a more balanced, believable, and helpful thought that goes beyond “thinking positively.”
As one can imagine, initially it can take a lot of effort and energy to work through these steps, however, it is worth making the investment, if it means reduced feelings of distress, an improved sense of overall well-being, and increased confidence to see alternative solutions in the face of a variety of stressors.