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Brain Power

What is Cognitive Restructuring and How to Think Clearer

Written by Clay Drinko
Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)
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Humans are guilty of having less rational thoughts. We assume the worst will happen, and we jump to conclusions before having complete information. Science claims that cognitive restructuring is the key to thinking clearly, but before we jump into that, what is cognitive restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring helps people become aware of their irrational thoughts so that they can correct their thoughts and replace them with more rational ways of thinking. It can help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, anger, and trauma. It is the four-step process that helps people recognize their distorted thoughts and substitute them with positive thoughts.

It’s important to look into options for interrupting and redirecting negative thought patterns as they arise. This enables a person to think clearly and ignore irrational thoughts as they try to surface.

What Is Cognitive Restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring is a collection of therapeutic strategies that assist individuals in recognizing and altering their negative thought patterns. It is a good idea to look into methods for interrupting and rerouting thought patterns when they start to become negative and self-defeating. Cognitive reorganization is capable of doing that.

The method of cognitive restructuring has been effective in assisting people to change their thinking patterns. The purpose of using this technique to manage stress is to swap out cognitive distortions—thoughts that cause tension—for more rational, stress-free ones.

Cognitive restructuring is a major part of cognitive behavioral therapy, which Aaron Beck developed 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 minimize their mental health symptoms.[1]


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

As the name implies, cognitive restructuring methods aim to restructure inaccurate or harmful thinking patterns. Sometimes people encounter cognitive distortions-mental patterns that provide a skewed and unhealthful perspective of reality. To understand how cognitive restructuring works, one needs to understand cognitive distortions.

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

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

Types of Cognitive Distortions

The following are examples of various cognitive distortions:

1. Mental Filtering

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

For example, if a child throws a surprise birthday party for their mom, and everything goes well without a hitch, but the cake ends up being the wrong flavor. With mental filtering, the child will fixate on that one detail and will feel that the whole arrangement was a failure.


2. Black and White Thinking

When a situation like that occurs, a person is unable to identify any middle ground and perceives the situation with a defeatist attitude.

3. Overgeneralization

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

4. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing thinking arises when a person expects the worst outcome to occur. This often happens with people who fear flying. Even though flying is the safest form of travel, they will begin to fear that the plane will crash each time they board it.

5. Personalization

Personalization generally occurs in people with low self-esteem or those who have paranoia. It happens when they suppose that everything people do or say is about them.

6. Should Statements

These statements come about when someone compares themselves and others to the perceived universal standards. We may witness this with young girls who, after seeing commercials that advertise beauty products, begin to say, “I should be thinner or prettier.”

7. Mind Reading

This can happen when someone assumes what others are thinking about them without verification.

8. Fortune-telling

When you anticipate a bad result without realistically considering the actual odds of that result, you are engaging in the cognitive distortion known as fortune-telling. For example, if you are afraid of flying, you can divert your attention to the future about what you will do after the plane lands instead of fixating on the minimal chances of the plane crashing.

9. Emotional Reasoning

The term “emotional reasoning” refers to the tendency to be overly aware of your feelings and to base your judgments on those feelings. You assume something is true just because it “feels” right to you, even though that is not the case.

For example, if you get stuck in an elevator, your anxiety can make you “feel” like the elevator will malfunction and would drop. But logically, that is not the case.


Elevator malfunctions are common, and you will be out of the situation in a few minutes.

10. Labeling

Labeling occurs 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 a failure, it is called labeling.

The 4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring

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.

Recognizing these maladaptive beliefs as they occur is a key benefit of cognitive restructuring. That way, you can teach yourself to reframe negative ideas more constructively. The idea behind this theory is that if you can shift your perspective on certain events or situations, you may be able to change both the emotions you experience and the actions you engage in as a result.

When you seek to engage in this technique, you first need to understand when to use cognitive restructuring. Let’s look at the four major steps you will need to follow and use the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing as an example.

1. Become Aware of Your Thinking

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 changing your thoughts, you have to become aware of your thinking – no judgment or correction yet.

Using catastrophizing as an example, 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 family. The first step is to become aware of that thought and catch it every time I slip into catastrophizing. I ask, “is it true,” and if you are trying to predict the future, I know this is not true.


You can take an inventory of your automatic thoughts for a week or 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 cannot correct problematic, automatic thinking without becoming aware of what we are thinking in the first place.

2. Evaluate It

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

Why do I think I am going to lose my job? Maybe it is because I saw my parents lose their jobs, which added a lot of stress to the family when I was a child. Maybe I feel like an imposter, and I’m not confident enough about some of my financial decisions. Reflecting on questions can help you achieve an answer.

3. Get Rational

Once we have identified a thought as problematic or unhealthy, we can identify why it is problematic in the first place. This is when we begin to ask why we think this is true, whether it is true, and how close to the truth it is.

I can start telling myself that I do not know whether or not I will lose my job. All I can focus on is giving my best performance. If there is a chance of losing my job, I can spend time networking on LinkedIn instead of catastrophizing.


I can also tell myself that linking the loss of my job to losing everything is not reasonable. I could list all the things I could do as a replacement for my job if I do lose it. That would prevent me from the risk of losing other things in my life.

4. Replace It

Finally, generate alternatives to the cognitive distortion with more rational thought. Our automatic thoughts are habitual and sometimes beyond our subconscious control. Hence, the idea is not to stop cognitive distortions but to catch ourselves when we distort reality and quickly replace the distortion with more rational thoughts.

Replace “I’m going to lose my job” with a more well-reasoned thought each time. I might remind myself, “I don’t know what the odds of me losing my job are, but I do know that I have seniority and just got a raise. And if I do lose this job, I could always return to working at my father-in-law’s store.”

By reorganizing one’s thoughts, people can gain a fresh perspective on their experiences. The idea is to replace cognitive distortions with more pragmatic ways of thinking, but this requires a lot of reflection and self-awareness. You can certainly try it on your own, but it is often better to have a trained professional guide you through the process.

Effectiveness of Cognitive Restructuring

Science has shown that cognitive restructuring works. In one study, cognitive restructuring was more effective in reducing anxiety and worry as compared to a control group and a group that was taught relaxation techniques.[4]

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 is true and how often it is true. Develop a more coherent line of positive thinking and then replace the distortion with that realistic thought.

Cognitive restructuring may not be as easy, but if you are willing to get reflective and are becoming self-aware, it can have measurable effects on reducing your trauma, stress, anger, depression, and anxiety symptoms.

I want to reiterate that cognitive behavioral therapy is a modality best done by trained professionals. For those 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.


Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

What is Cognitive Restructuring and How to Think Clearer

Cognitive restructuring is a fundamental component of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It is regarded as one of the most effective therapy options for mental problems like social anxiety disorder (SAD).

 It is an effective method for identifying and comprehending problematic thoughts, as well as for questioning and changing automatic thoughts. These skewed thoughts are known as cognitive distortions.

Cognitive restructuring is based on the premise that if you can alter your automatic ideas, you can control your emotions and actions.

It is not a single technique but rather a process. It employs various techniques, including thought recording, decatastrophizing, disputing, and guided questioning, to reduce anxiety by replacing cognitive distortions with more rational and optimistic thoughts.

Featured photo credit: Benjamin Davies via unsplash.com


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