A 'Crashcourse' in Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (or CBT) is one of the most rigorously researched psychotherapies, and has a strong body of evidence for its effectiveness with clinical and sub-clinical mental health concerns. But is it the therapy for you? I have put together a brief “crashcourse” in one of the major aspects of CBT, COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING, so you can decide for yourself if this is a therapy that might be helpful for you, and you can also start putting into place some of the concepts of this evidence-based therapy!


The first step is AWARENESS

One of the basic components of CBT is to become aware of your cognitive distortions of choice. Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that are exaggerated and/or irrational, and they are thought to contribute to worsen feelings of anxiety or depression.

There are a number of common cognitive distortions out there, and some or many may be familiar to you! Please note, the majority of people will experience some of these, but not everyone will be suffering from anxiety and depression – sometimes people believe more strongly in their cognitive distortions and that is when issues such as anxiety and depression can result.

Some of the common cognitive distortions are:

  • All or nothing thinking

  • Overgeneralisation

  • Filtering

  • Ignoring the positive

  • Jumping to conclusions (either Mind-Reading, or Reading the Crystal Ball)

  • Magnification and Minimisation

  • Catastrophising

  • Emotional reasoning

  • “Should-ing”

  • Labeling and Mislabeling

  • Personalisation

  • Blaming

  • Fallacy of Change

  • Always being right

I won’t go into the details of these in this article, however you can easily search for more information online or in a basic CBT article/textbook. Just reading the names might have you recognising some of these in yourself though!

The first step in freeing yourself from cognitive distortions is to just become aware of them. If you have a name for them, and some examples of how they work, they become much easier to recognise – and much harder to ignore! Once you are aware of your tendency towards distorted or irrational thinking, you are able to start challenging these thoughts. For example, if you are an all-or-nothing thinker, start to look for exceptions. Or, if you often jump to conclusions, start actively looking for evidence and try to find alternate conclusions. If you are a person who ignores the positive, start spending some time consciously identifying positives that have occurred each day – this might be as small as “This morning I didn’t burn the toast” – but it’s a start to get you refocussing on what is actually going okay, rather than simply seeing what is wrong around you!

The more time you spend practicing these skills (which is called cognitive restructuring) it will become second nature to challenge your negative or irrational thinking patterns, and you will start replacing them with more positive thoughts – with time, it will become second nature!

Identify what you DO have control over

Research studies looking at burnout have suggested that people tend to feel more stressed when they feel that they don’t have a choice in what happens to them. In some situations, such as within the context of a job, there is very little choice. But we can also create a choice-less reality in our minds when we fail to recognize when choices exist. Pay attention to your self talk, the chatter in your mind: do you tend to say you ‘have to’ or ‘can’t’ do things a lot?

The statement, “I can’t do some exercise because I have to attend a work function” ignores the reality that both activities are choices. Just because one choice is something you are expected to do, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a choice to begin with. By changing your ‘have to’s and ‘can’t’s’ into ‘choose to’ and ‘choose not to’) can actually remind you that you do have choice in a situation, and help you feel less stressed. “I’d like to go for a run, but I choose to go to the work function instead,” feels less restricted, and like you do have a say in the matter!

Reduce the use the ‘Shoulds’ in your Life

I’ve come across the phrase "Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself", which I think is such a great, concise way of assisting a client to see how often they said the word ‘should’ when making plans. So what’s the problem with the word ‘should’, you might be thinking? It’s another confining/restricting word that suggests there is only one way that things need to be done. But at the end of the day, we do things because we want to (and usually, because we have valid reasons for wanting to do them), and if we can get our self-talk to reflect this, it usually feels less restricted and more empowering. “I should call my friend” sounds and feels better as, “I’d like to call my friend”. And importantly, if you feel that this is not a true statement, you might reconsider the action.

Refocus on the Positives

It is common for people to place an unwarranted level of focus on the negative, discount the positive, or fail to see the positive altogether. This usually creates a view of the world that can seem overwhelming, and problems that feel insurmountable. When you begin identifying the positive aspects of a situation, and start to just accept the negative, you will find that the situation becomes less stressful. If you notice that people are rude to you one day, then try to go out of your way to notice the people who are neutral or polite. If one thing after another just seems to be going wrong, then make an effort to notice and appreciate what does go smoothly (even it is as small as the aforementioned piece of unburnt toast at breakfast time!).

Similar to this, many people find that keeping a gratitude journal – which is a daily log of things for which they are grateful - is immensely helpful in that you have not only generated a list of positives to look over, but it actually trains the mind to notice these positive occurrences throughout the day, which can completely change your perception and experience of “stressful” situations.

Bring your mind back to the present

When you are trying to solve a problem, try to remain focused on what is actually happening right here and now, without trying to predict the future or wallowing in past issues; this will help you to deal with what’s going on now. Take for example a major interpersonal conflict; these can often be complicated (and worsened!) by bringing up past grievances. When people focus on not only what’s happening now, but the add on all of the previous times they’ve been angry at each other, plus project into the future that things will never change, their anger and frustration sharply escalates.

So instead of incorporating all past, and future grievances, try to stay in the present, dealing with the specific current problem, and try to find a solution or compromise that works. This approach of sticking with the present can be very effective in helping you deal with a variety of stressors without becoming as overwhelmed.

These techniques for cognitive restructuring can be helpful in changing negative thought patterns to relieve daily stress; with practice, you may see a significantly positive change in outlook, and a decrease in your experience of stress. A Psychologist or Counsellor with CBT training can assist you to build upon these skills, and help you to achieve a more positive outlook on life and reduce symptoms of issues such as anxiety and depression.


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