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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
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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

    More by this author

    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 July 21, 2021

    Are You Right-Brain Dominant? (7 Right Brain Characteristics)

    Are You Right-Brain Dominant? (7 Right Brain Characteristics)
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    Do you prefer drawing to writing? If so, you are most likely right-brain dominant.

    When we break down the characteristics of a right-brain dominant person, we can think of someone very visual, a little spontaneous, and often labeled as emotional. They may struggle with memorization, as well as paying attention to detail. We most likely label those who are right-brain dominant as “creative”. Their learning styles often differ from a left-brain dominant person, who traditionally tends to do very well in western school systems. A right-brain dominant person on the other hand, can find it difficult to settle into routines. However, working in group settings are ideal for them, this helps them nurture the creative nature that comes with being right-brain dominant.

    Here’re 7 right brain characteristics:

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    1. You Prefer Drawing to Writing

    If you are right-brain dominant, you most likely would rather create a picture to tell your story than writing it down word for word. Right-brain dominant people often find themselves creating visuals for ongoing learning methods.

    2. You Prefer Open-Ended Questions to Multiple Choice

    Since right-brain dominant people thrive in group settings, answering questions posed in an open-ended format tends to be more natural for them than answering questions in multiple choice format. Settings that allows for discussion and freedom when finding solutions is better for a right brain dominant person than finding solutions through “black and white” methods.

    3. You Tend To Be Disorganized

    A right-brain dominant person may have difficulties staying on task and keeping things in order. This can be as simple as maintaining a neat and clean work desk or completing specific academic tasks.

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    4. You Have Difficulty Focusing for Long Periods of Time

    A right-brain dominant person requires constant stimulation. Remember, they are visual beings. If you place a right-brain dominant person in a traditional western school, they will have a hard time focusing, as they need constant stimulation.

    5. You Have Less Than Average Memorization Skills

    When it comes to memorization, right-brain dominant people require a unique way to call upon information they’ve digested.[1] Instead of repetition to remember specific details, use meanings, colors, visual representations and emotions.

    6. You Are a Holistic Thinker

    A right-brain dominant person refers to the bigger picture, in other words they are holistic thinkers. They have the ability to recognize interconnectedness of the smaller pieces that make up the big picture.

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    7. You Can Be Spontaneous And Intuitive

    Right-brain dominant people like adventure and thrive off of energy and spontaneity. They are emotionally intuitive and tend to be emotional by nature.

    How to Make Good Use of Right Brain Characteristics?

    If you have right-brain tendencies, you know that some of the characteristics listed above can be used to your advantage. You can choose a career that corresponds to these strengths in order to nurture your creative self.

    Don’t be afraid to go into the opposite direction as well– having some right-brain traits doesn’t stop you from pursuing left-brain activities, and strengthening your own weaknesses.

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    Final Thoughts

    Be sure to be mindful that the labels “left” or “right-brain” are not truly an important matter. It just helps you observe the characteristics you already have.

    Don’t pigeonhole yourself by solely identifying with one or the other, because in reality both hemispheres are functioning. Determining if you fit the left or right-brained stereotype will merely help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, and help you expand on them later.

    More Tips About Boosting Brain Power

    Featured photo credit: Daria Tumanova via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] The Education Alliance: Right Brain vs. Left Brain

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