Our thinking is and perception of events guides our decisions and actions in our daily living. Therefore, our reality is influenced by the nature of our thoughts. Cognitive restructuring is a research based method based on cognitive behavioural therapy principles, that help us to identify unhelpful and maladaptive thoughts and offer skills of managing them to make them more constructive1,2,3.
Maladaptive thoughts or irrational thoughts are negative or an exaggerated perception of oneself or others based on limited experience and personal biases. They tend to cause more distress than the distressing event itself and can even reinforce our biased thinking if they go unchecked. Some types of maladaptive thoughts are as follows:
- Judgements: Involves making snap judgements without reviewing the situation fully. Example; a student getting lower marks than his friends judges his potential without realizing that his friends actually put in more hours of study than him.
- Catastrophizing: Imagining and believing only in the worst possible scenario. For example, believing that a friend dislikes you if she/he missed your phone call.
- All or nothing/Black or White Thinking: Thinking only from extremes. Example, “Everything I do goes wrong”.
- Shoulds and Musts: Setting very strict rules for oneself. For example “I should know everything there is to know about this topic”.
- Mind reading: Assuming what other people might be thinking about you without realistic evidence for it. For example “My friends must really think I am arrogant”.
- Fortune telling: Making predictions (mostly negative) about oneself or others without actual evidence for it. For example “I know I am going to fail this job interview”.
The process of cognitive restructuring is as follows3:
Step 1-Identifying the situation:
This step requires enlisting the situation that was upsetting. It can be related to an event or even a person.
Step 2: Identifying the thoughts:
This step requires listing maladaptive thoughts (like the ones listed above) that were triggered in the event or situation mentioned in step 1. Since these thoughts are negative or upsetting, it is best to enlist the ones that were most troubling.
Step 3: Identifying the emotions
Then write the emotions experienced due to the thoughts listed in step 2. It is helpful to use the exact emotion felt. It is important to identify and express your feelings as it helps in understanding the problem and differentiating the thoughts from the feeling.
Step 4: Gathering evidence
In this step thoughts are analyzed by listing evidence in favour of and against them.
Step 5: Thought restructuring
Having collected all the necessary information, thoughts are then challenged and given a more constructive outlook.
The following is an example of the cognitive restructuring;
Getting late for work
I am never on time
I never do things right (“All or Nothing” thinking style)
I have reached work late before
8/10 times I reach work on time
Sometimes I even reach before time
I am late for work today BUT, I had many errands to run early morning.
When I have more things to do in the morning I can get up 30 minutes earlier than usual to get a head-start and avoid getting late
There are many ways to restructure thinking such as trying to talk compassionately to oneself, just like you would with a friend with a similar problem. It takes some time to develop practice in adapting your thinking style but continued practice can help in looking at failures as a partial success instead of calling them a complete fiasco, or focusing on solving the problem at hand instead of running out of energy and resources by blaming oneself or others.
In conclusion, cognitive restructuring is one of the most successful strategies in modern day cognitive therapy. The simple steps highlighted in this article are at the heart of the restructuring process and can be adjusted according to individual needs. This practice has proven to be successful with issues of mood, anxiety, stress, etc. Getting professional help and supervision can enable one to master the art of restructuring thought patterns to gain maximum benefits.
1. Central and West London NHS Foundation Trust. (2016). Cognitive restructuring [Lealfet]. London, England: Author.
2. Burns, D. (1989). The feeling good handbook. New York City;NY: William Morrow and Company.
3. Beck, A.T. (1967). Depression: Causes and treatment. Philadelphia,PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.