What is Cognitive Restructuring? 

Cognition includes all of the conscious and unconscious processes that we use when thinking, perceiving, and reasoning. Thoughts, feelings, behaviors, situations, and environments are all involved in cognition. In fact, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and situations influence each other, so changing one can change the others. 

That is the principle behind cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is a strategy that is often used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people identify their negative thoughts and beliefs, also known as cognitive distortions, and turn them around. When we have negative thoughts, they can lead to distressing emotions like anxiety, depression, and anger. Sometimes, those emotions trigger unhelpful behaviors such as avoidance, withdrawal, and self-destructiveness. 

One of the especially tricky things about the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is that thoughts are not always based in fact, yet they can still affect tangible feelings and behaviors. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated thought patterns that are not based on fact and that lead you to view things more negatively. 

The Role that Cognitive Distortions Play 

Cognitive distortions can skew our perceptions of ourselves and our world, negatively impacting our mental health. Cognitive distortions take on many forms. Sandra Silva Casabianca broke down 15 of the most common ones and examples of them: 

  1. Mental Filtering 

Filtering the lens through which you view situations negatively. When you neglect to see the positive in a situation and dwell on its negatives, you are filtering. 

  1. Polarization 

You might recognize polarization as “all-or-nothing” thinking. Categorizing situations and experiences as black or white or good or bad with no in-between is polarization. Polarization often leads to unrealistic standards for yourself and others. It can set you up to fail because there is no room for error. Rather than viewing mistakes as learning opportunities, they signal that it is useless to continue to try. That is not the case!

  1. Overgeneralization 

Recognize the words “always,” “never,” and “nothing”? Nothing ever goes your way? That is an overgeneralization! Overgeneralization occurs when you use an isolated negative event as grounds for an infinite pattern of loss and defeat. 

  1. Discounting the Positive 

Slightly similar to mental filtering, discounting the positive involves dismissing the positive aspects of a situation or event. If you have ever dismissed a compliment from someone as just being nice, you have engaged in discounting the positive. 

  1. Jumping to Conclusions 

Interpreting an event or situation negatively without evidence is jumping to conclusions. With this cognitive distortion, we often react to our assumptions rather than the reality of the situation. Say a friend is not so talkative in your daily carpool home. You assume they are mad and keep your distance. This type of “mind-reading” led you to react before learning that they have just had a bad day. Jumping to conclusions is often a response to a persistent thought or concern that you are having. 

  1. Catastrophizing 

When you assume the worst, you are catastrophizing. No matter how improbable it is, jumping to the worst possible conclusion is catastrophizing. “What If” thinking usually falls into this category. “What if they break up with me?” and “What if I fail?” are examples of catastrophizing. Sometimes catastrophizing is referred to as doomsday thinking. 

  1. Personalization 

Personalization is taking responsibility for events that are entirely or partially out of control. Usually, personalization is accompanied by guilt or blame assignments without full contemplation of the situation’s factors. It may also manifest as taking things personally; you may take a friend discussing their personal beliefs about parenting as a personal attack against your parenting style. 

  1. Control Fallacies

A fallacy is a misconception, delusion, or error. Control fallacies have two main presentations: (1) You feel responsible and on top of everything in your life and others’ lives or (2) You feel like you have no control over anything. 

  1. Fallacy of Fairness 

With the fallacy of fairness, you may think that you know what is fair and what is not and anyone in dissent is wrong. There is a scale of fairness that you may apply to every behavior and situation. This cognitive distortion can lead to conflict. 

  1. Blaming 

“You” statements often stem from blaming. “You did this.” “You made me mad.” “You do not do your part.” Blaming is making others responsible for your feelings. Even when people do hurtful things, your reactions are in your hands. This distortion stems from the belief that others have the power to affect your life, even more than yourself. Some cognitive restructuring techniques may work on “I” statements (“I felt upset when you did not make time for me.” “I feel angry.” etc.) to aid this cognitive distortion. 

  1. Shoulds 

“Should” statements are unspoken rules you set for yourself and others that do not account for circumstance. Shoulds are the notion that things should be a certain way, no ifs, ands, or buts. “You should be better.” “You should be doing more.” These are just a couple of examples. 

  1. Emotional Reasoning 

Emotional reasoning is the cognitive distortion that “I feel, therefore it is.” Perhaps you feel nervous, so you firmly believe that something bad is going to happen. That is emotional reasoning. Assessing a random situation based on your emotional reactions is emotional reasoning. 

  1. Fallacy of Change 

Expecting others to change to suit your expectations, particularly with enough pressure from you, falls under the fallacy of change. Thinking that your partner will stop going out, even though they have always been very social, because you tell them you disapprove enough times would be the fallacy of change.

  1. Global Labeling 

Making one attribute into an absolute is global labeling or mislabeling. It tends to occur when you judge and define yourself or others based on an isolated event. If someone misses one deadline and you label them unmotivated, it would be an example of the overgeneralization that is global labeling. Global labeling neglects context and can impact your relationships with others and yourself. We label others but also do the same to ourselves sometimes, and the hits to our self-esteem and confidence can lead to insecurity and anxiety. 

  1. Always Being Right 

True to its name, this cognitive distortion can lead you to see your brown opinions as facts of life and motivate you to prove that you are right. This cognitive distortion can trump all else, including evidence and other people’s feelings. 

Cognitive Restructuring for Cognitive Distortions 

Cognitive restructuring, sometimes known as cognitive reframing, helps us challenge cognitive distortions and replace them with more realistic, helpful, and positive thoughts. Cognitive restructuring employs a variety of techniques to challenge and change negative or unbalanced thoughts. A few examples are thought recording, thought challenging, and alternative thinking. 

Thought recording is keeping track of your negative thoughts so that you can identify the situations in which they most commonly occur. If you can catch those moments and prepare yourself to redirect negative thoughts, you can take pre-emptive steps against cognitive distortions. You can find a simple thought record template here

Thought challenging is questioning the accuracy and helpfulness of your negative thoughts. In essence, this is playing devil’s advocate against your own negative or unbalanced thoughts in order to create more realistic thought patterns and challenge distorted beliefs. 

Alternative thinking is forcing yourself to consider alternative perspectives on a situation or consider evidence that may support or not support the triggering cognition. Coming up with more accurate and helpful ways of thinking about a situation helps to re-center your point of view and keep reality in mind. 

The American Psychological Association provides a detailed, 5-step guide to cognitive restructuring that you can find here.

But How Does Cognitive Restructuring Really Work? 

Cognitive restructuring works on a neurological level. Neuroplasticity is the idea that our brains can change. Thoughts are capable of acting as the instigators of neural change. 

When we have negative thoughts, our brains release stress hormones, which can lead to changes in our brain chemistry. The great thing about neuroplasticity is that it means we can reverse those changes or at least mediate their effects. We can also create new neural pathways through the practice of cognitive restructuring. 

CBT, which cognitive restructuring is a part of, promotes neuroplasticity. In CBT, you link thoughts with behavior, as well as emotions, situations, and physiology, and recognize the ways that thoughts manifest or influence these dynamics. Then, you practice changing your thoughts to change your behavior or experience. This requires ongoing practice that leads you to adopt different ways of thinking and behaving. In turn, your brain adapts to those new thoughts and behaviors! 

That’s why it is called cognitive restructuring. You are restructuring and retraining your mind. With cognitive restructuring, you can reroute, and even create new, neural pathways. 

Cognitive restructuring is just one example of how your mind is pretty darn strong. Exercising it and taking care of it is so important! You spend a lot of your time inside of your head, so making it the kindest place it can be is important. Cognitive restructuring is just one way to do so!

If you are looking for therapy in Atlanta, our Buckhead based therapists are here to support you. Our therapists help clients to change and challenge unhelpful thinking. You can reach out to schedule a complimentary appointment.  

Thank you to Mia Pearce and Dr. Laura Riss for this blog post.