Building Awareness of Automatic Negative Thoughts
What is Cognitive Restructuring?
Cognitive restructuring is another core component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Cognitive restructuring 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, cognitive restructuring 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, replacing, and reframing them. In this post, we focus on Step 1.
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 1: Increasing Awareness and Building Room for Flexibility
Monitoring our automatic negative thoughts, is an important first step in the cognitive restructuring process. In a previous blog, I discussed the “ABC’s of CBT,” which provides the foundation for thought monitoring in CBT.
By tracking our activating events, beliefs, and consequences, we can begin to see where we might find our most challenging negative thoughts and what exactly they are telling us.
In a classic course of CBT, clients are asked to monitor their automatic negative thoughts in a thought record over the course of a week. Automatic thoughts are tracked using the “ABC” model, by ensuring thoughts are recorded in the context of triggering events and resulting consequences of these thoughts.
In my experience, clients often find that the act of monitoring negative thoughts alone can help to reduce the occurrences of such thoughts. It may not completely resolve the distress in a situation, but by closely documenting our negative thoughts, we can begin to slow down the often exponential growth of distress in the face of our most activating stressors.
Once we learn how to slow down and increased awareness of our automatic negative thoughts, we can begin to contemplate more helpful or healthy ways to think about our situations.