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Last Updated on February 1, 2021

4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring to Help You Think Clearly

4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring to Help You Think Clearly

Humans are guilty of having less than rational thoughts. We might assume the worst is going to happen or jump to conclusions before we have all the information. Cognitive restructuring helps people become aware of their irrational thoughts so that they can correct them and replace them with more rational ways of thinking, which can help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, anger, and trauma.

Cognitive restructuring is a major part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which was developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Beck linked his patients’ symptoms with their distorted thinking and hypothesized that if he could help his patients recognize their distorted thinking, he could help them alleviate their mental health symptoms.[1]

David Burns then popularized Beck’s ideas in the 1980s with his book Feeling Good.[2]

Cognitive restructuring is at the heart of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is the four-step process that helps people recognize their distorted thoughts in order to change them.

Cognitive Distortions

I spoke with Margot Escott, LSCW[3] about how she uses cognitive restructuring in her therapy practice in Naples, Florida, and she explained that she begins the process by making her clients aware of the types of cognitive distortions.

Escott hands her clients a list of cognitive distortions[4] and asks them to spend a week thinking about which ones resonate with them.

The following are examples of various cognitive distortions:

Mental Filtering

This happens when a person picks out only one (usually negative) detail of a situation and focuses only on the emotions and behaviors associated with it.

For example, perhaps a son throws a surprise birthday party for his mom. Everything goes off without a hitch, but the cake ends up being the wrong flavor. With mental filtering, the son will focus on that one detail and feel that the whole thing was a failure.

Black and White Thinking

When this occurs, a person cannot see any middle ground and perceives a situation as all or nothing.

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Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is very common and happens when a person jumps to a conclusion without enough information.

Catastrophizing

This way of thinking comes about when a person thinks the worst outcome will occur. This often happens with people who fear flying. Despite the fact that flying is the safest form of travel, they will begin to believe the plane will crash each time they get on one.

Personalization

Generally occurring in people with low self-esteem or paranoia, this happens when someone thinks that everything people do or say is about them.

Should Statements

These statements come about when someone compares themselves and others to perceived universal standards. We may see this in young girls who, after seeing commercials advertising beauty products, begin to say “I should be thinner/prettier.”

Mind Reading

This can happen when someone assumes what someone else is thinking without verification.

Fortune Telling

People are generally very concerned about the future, and this can lead some to assume how things will unfold, usually through negative thought patterns.

Emotional Reasoning

This happens when a person assumes their emotions reflect how reality actually is.

Labeling

Labeling comes about when someone makes broad statements or generalizations about themselves or others based on situation-specific behavior. For example, if you make a mistake and conclude that you are dumb or a failure, this is labeling.

Each list of cognitive distortions is different, but this will give you a general idea of the kind of irrational thinking cognitive restructuring aims to correct.

The 4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring

When you seek to engage in cognitive restructuring, there are four major steps you will need to follow.

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1. Make It Conscious

The process starts by making our automatic thoughts conscious. The first step requires you to take a kind of inventory of your potentially problematic ways of thinking. Before you can change your thoughts, you have to become aware of how you’re thinking—no judgment or correction yet.

You can take an inventory of your automatic thoughts for a week, or you can explore them in therapy with a trained professional. Escott asks her clients to identify cognitive distortions they noticed during one week.

Either way, the first step is essential because we can’t correct problematic, automatic thinking without becoming aware of what we’re thinking in the first place.

2. Evaluate It

Next, it’s time to begin generating more rational thoughts. Once you’ve taken an inventory of your thoughts, you can start to sort out which ones seem rational and which ones don’t.

For example, if you say something like, “I’m never going to meet my life partner,” you can lump this thought into the unproductive/unhealthy/negative category because you aren’t a fortune teller and certainly don’t know whether or not you’ll meet someone.

Step 2 establishes that this is a thought worth changing.

3. Get Rational

Once we’ve identified a thought as problematic or unhealthy, we can identify why it’s problematic in the first place. This is when we begin to ask why we think this is true, whether it really is true, and how often it’s true.

The idea behind step 3 is to identify how our thinking is a cognitive distortion and what the reality actually is.

4. Replace It

Finally, generate alternatives to the cognitive distortion with a more rational thought. Our automatic thoughts are habitual, so the idea isn’t to stop cognitive distortions but to catch ourselves when we’re distorting reality and quickly replace the distortion with a more rational thought.

If I catch myself thinking that my boss hates me, I need to remind myself that I’m mind reading. Then, every time I catch myself in the act of mind reading that my boss hates me, I can replace that distortion with something like, “I don’t know whether or not my boss hates me unless I ask, but I do know that I got a positive performance review and a raise last month.”

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The idea is to replace cognitive distortions with more rational ways of thinking, but this requires a lot of reflection and self-awareness. You can certainly try it on your own, but it’s often better to have a trained professional guide you through the process.

Example of Cognitive Restructuring

Let’s say I catch myself catastrophizing. I notice that sometimes I say that I will lose my job and not be able to pay my bills and then lose my home and my family.

Cognitive restructuring asks me to confront that cognitive distortion[5].

Cognitive restructuring - Dawnguide

    The first step is for me to become aware of that thought and catch myself every time I slip into catastrophizing.

    Next, I ask myself if it’s true, and if you’re trying to predict the future, you can know this isn’t true. This is where mindfulness practice comes in handy.[6] According to Escott, mindfulness is a great way for people to practice living more in the present moment, which can also reduce some cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing.

    Now, I don’t know whether or not I will lose my job, and I can’t even answer how often this cognitive distortion is true, so I move on to step 3.

    Now, you should reflect through specific questions. Why do I think I’m going to lose my job? Maybe my parents lost their jobs, which added a lot of stress to the family when I was a child. Maybe I feel like an imposter and am not confident about some of my financial decisions.

    In step 3, I come up with something more rational. I can start telling myself that I don’t know whether or not I’m going to lose my job. All I can focus on is doing the best job I can. If there is a chance I will lose my job, I can spend time networking on LinkedIn instead of catastrophizing.

    I can also tell myself that linking the loss of my job with losing everything is not rational. I can make a list of all the things I could do if I actually did lose my job that would prevent me from losing the other things in my life.

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    Finally, I replace “I’m going to lose my job” with a more rational thought each time I catch myself catastrophizing. I might remind myself, “I don’t know the odds of me losing my job, but I do know that I have seniority and just got a raise. And if I do lose this job, I could always go back to working at my father-in-law’s store.”

    It’s probably better to be pithier when you’re replacing automatic distortions, but this gives you a good idea of how to get started.

    Effectiveness of Cognitive Restructuring

    Science has shown that cognitive restructuring works. In one study[7], cognitive restructuring was more effective in reducing anxiety and worry than a control group and a group that was taught relaxation techniques.

    The idea is that cognitive restructuring forces people to fix their automatic thoughts. Escott explains that this process is effective because our thoughts become our feelings, which affect our overall well-being.

    The Bottom Line

    Cognitive restructuring addresses the root of the problem: our cognitive distortions. So, the next time you catch yourself overgeneralizing or catastrophizing, take a step back. Ask yourself if that’s really true and how often it’s true. Develop a more rational line of thinking and then replace the distortion with a more realistic thought.

    Cognitive restructuring may not be as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, but if you’re willing to get reflective and self-aware and do the work, it can have measurable effects on reducing your trauma, stress, anger, and depression, and anxiety symptoms.

    I want to reiterate that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a modality best done by trained professionals. For those of you who need help or want to get deeper into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and cognitive restructuring, please search for trained mental health professionals in your area.

    More Tips on Changing Your Thoughts

    Featured photo credit: Benjamin Davies via unsplash.com

    Reference

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    Clay Drinko

    Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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    Last Updated on April 28, 2021

    What Is a Fixed Mindset And Can You Change It?

    What Is a Fixed Mindset And Can You Change It?

    I sometimes think that I will never be a good cook or that I just was not born to be bilingual. Occasionally, I catch my daughter saying that I cannot do it. And I hear people say things such as they are not good at math or not cut out to be in business.

    These are all examples of a fixed mindset, and we are all guilty of it from time to time. Fortunately, a fixed mindset does not have to be forever.

    What is a Fixed Mindset?

    Psychologist Carol Dweck is one of the leading experts on mindset and the author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

    Early in her career, she identified two mindsets: growth and fixed. These two mindsets explain why some people face challenges head-on while others are crushed by it.

    People with fixed mindsets think that their skills or abilities are set in stone and determined at birth. If you think you are bad at math, not good at sports, or a born musician, you are demonstrating a fixed mindset.

    People with a growth mindset think that their skills and abilities can be improved and refined through effort and perseverance. When you take steps to improve yourself and stick with it, you are exhibiting a growth mindset.

    False Growth Mindset

    Dweck clarified her work by explaining that everyone has a fixed mindset at one time or another about one thing or another.[1] People do not permanently have either a fixed or growth mindset.

    I might work hard in the gym to get stronger and more flexible while giving up on my piano lessons because I think I am not a musical person. This example shows that I have a growth mindset regarding my fitness but a fixed mindset regarding my piano playing.

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    It is also an oversimplification to say that a growth mindset is just about effort. Dweck explains that effort and strategy are needed for a true growth mindset. It is not enough for me to just keep trying and failing. A true growth mindset involves effort, reflection, reassessment, and then more effort.

    Self-awareness is a critical component of a growth mindset because you have to accurately assess your current progress to make appropriate changes toward meeting your goals. Just showing up is not going to cut it.

    Fixed Mindset Triggers

    A fixed mindset trigger is something that shifts your mindset away from thinking that abilities can be improved to thinking they are fixed or predetermined. Think about what might make you raise your hands in defeat and proclaim you are not good at something and never will be.

    The most obvious fixed mindset trigger is someone telling you that you are not good at something. This can make it seem like your ability is set in stone.

    Imagine you are trying your hardest in Spanish class, and the teacher offhandedly says, “It is a good thing you are good at math.” That comment can make it seem like you have always been bad at Spanish and always will be, regardless of the effort and determination you bring to the table.

    Another fixed mindset trigger is people overreacting to failure. When people make a big deal out of your mistakes, it can seem like you’re just not meant to be pursuing whatever it is you failed at.

    Let’s use our Spanish example. Let’s say you are working on your Spanish project—a film. You show it to a friend who starts laughing and points out how you said the word “Bota” instead of “Barco” over and over as the film zooms in on a boat. Instead of thinking about all the Spanish words you got right, your mind might dwell on that one egregious error, shifting you to a fixed mindset about your Spanish abilities.

    Finally, people rescuing you from failure can trigger a fixed mindset. Continuing our Spanish language example, if your mom stops letting you do your Spanish homework and starts doing it herself to prevent you from failing, you might start to think that you are not good at Spanish and never have been and never will be.

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    How Can You Change a Fixed Mindset?

    Dweck talks about process praise as the antidote to a fixed mindset.

    Process praise is when you compliment and encourage someone to put in the effort and use strategies and appropriate resources to learn and improve. While praising someone’s abilities often leads to a fixed mindset, process praise contributes to a growth mindset.

    So if I want to help someone change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, I should say something like, “You worked so hard on this” or “What could you try to do better next time?” instead of “You are so good at this” or “It is so unfair. Your opponent must have cheated.”

    You can try process praise for yourself, too. If you catch yourself making excuses, blaming someone or something else for your failure, or assuming your abilities are fixed, try process praise.

    Focus instead on the effort you put in and strategies and resources you used to improve. Dweck recommends being matter-of-fact and not too strong or passive with your process praise. Be direct without being harsh or too accommodating.

    Here are 8 other ways to shift from a fixed mindset to growth:

    1. Do Not Blame

    If you catch yourself blaming someone or something else for your failure, stop yourself and refocus on your role in your success or failure.

    2. Aim for Self-Awareness

    Self-awareness is key to a growth mindset. If you do not give much thought in your role in your success or failure, it is going to be difficult for you to strategize and improve.

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    So, ask yourself questions about your effort, strategy, and resources. Could I have practiced harder? Am I using the best schedule for my rehearsals? Is there a better way for me to study before the next test?

    3. Avoid Negative, Fixed Mindset Self-Talk

    Try to catch yourself when you think in fixed mindset terms. Stop saying that you were not made to do this or were not born to become that. Instead, start focusing on the effort and strategy you put in.

    4. Ask for Feedback (and listen to it)

    Feedback goes in one ear and out the other when we have a fixed mindset. When people think their abilities are set in stone, they tend to make excuses, get defensive, and place blame when receiving feedback.

    Break that cycle and actively seek out feedback. Do not get defensive or make excuses and listen closely to feedback, no matter how harsh. Use feedback to develop a better plan for improving your abilities.

    5. Do Not Overreact to Failure (keep it in perspective)

    Failure is a natural part of learning and improving, so do not overreact when it happens to you.[2]

    Try to keep failure in perspective, so you do not fall into a fixed mindset.

    6. Reflect and Reassess

    Set aside time to reflect on your progress and plan how to improve. Remember that effort is only one part of a true growth mindset. You also need to refine your strategy.

    7. Do Not Compare

    When you compare yourself to others, it is easy to fall into a fixed mindset. We do not usually see the effort and perseverance others put in, which is why it can lead to a fixed mindset.

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    If someone seems naturally smart, you do not actually know how much effort they put on studying. This is why comparing ourselves to others is a fixed mindset trap.

    8. Celebrate Effort (process not product)

    Finally, celebrate your effort and perseverance. Compliment yourself on how many piano classes you have taken or how you did not give up when Calculus class got tough.

    If you get stuck on how good or bad you are, you may find yourself shifting back to that fixed mindset.

    Final Thoughts on Changing a Fixed Mindset

    It is somehow comforting to know that everyone experiences a fixed mindset from time to time. However, we should not oversimplify shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. It takes more than focusing on effort.

    Do your best to notice when you start to compare yourself to others, make excuses, blame others for your mistakes, and disproportionately focus on your shortcomings. These are all fixed mindset traps.

    Instead, practice focusing on your effort and strategy. How hard did you work? And is it time to switch up your game plan for learning and improving?

    It is possible to change a fixed mindset as long as we are open and honest about what we need to do and change about ourselves.

    More Tips to Improve Your Mindset

    Featured photo credit: JD Mason via unsplash.com

    Reference

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