What is Cognitive Restructuring?

Do you find yourself stuck in your head, unable to be present, or trying to silence a critical internal voice reminding you of your flaws? If so, cognitive restructuring can prove to be an extremely useful tool to change your life. What is cognitive restructuring? It may sound complex, but simply put, it is a group of therapeutic methods that bring awareness and change to negative thought patterns. We all have those negative cycles in our brain. These thought patterns keep us stuck in a negative reaction to specific situations and/or people. These cycles can impact your relational and professional life, keep you from achieving your goals, and lead to anxiety and depression. For many of us, these negative thought patterns bring emotional turmoil into our lives.

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In this article, we’ll walk through some helpful cognitive restructuring techniques. In addition, we’ll provide example areas where you may struggle, and how to overcome them. As you begin your journey, it is a smart idea to have a therapist who can help you recognize your own thought patterns. An outside perspective is always useful for revealing blind spots. Some of these blind spots can include:

  • Black and White thinking
  • Catastrophizing
  • Rumination
  • Personalization

Cognitive restructuring gives you the opportunity to become aware of these cycles and actively reframe the thoughts as they occur. This will ultimately lead to long-lasting change. Let’s dive in.

Cognitive Restructuring Definition

If you are looking for a cognitive restructuring definition, it’s helpful to understand the underlying principle of cognitive mediation. This principle states that how we feel emotionally about a situation is not necessarily the result of what happens, but the result of how we think about what happens. Essentially, it means that we can change the way we feel by changing the way we think, therefore changing the way we experience our lives. The implications on your relationships and career are almost endless.

When we go through trauma or harmful situations, cognitive distortions (thought patterns that create a distorted view of reality) can be the result. These distortions are what lead to depression, anxiety, and self-defeating behaviors. Cognitive restructuring offers a way out of the maze into a new, better reality.

Cognitive Restructuring Techniques

Cognitive restructuring techniques will provide a framework for you to identify and undo negative thought patterns. You will be able to deconstruct thoughts that are holding you back and rebuild them in a more accurate light. Here are some cognitive restructuring techniques you can try on your own to decrease stress, anxiety, and big mood swings.

  1. Practice Self Awareness

Before you can correct a problem, you have to be able to identify it. This process depends on your ability to notice thoughts that begin the negative cycle in your brain. Make notes of where and when the downward spiral started. Journaling can be an effective tool in this process. To start, practice simply noticing your thoughts for a week or so without trying to change them. As you practice self-monitoring, it will become easier to spot your own vices.

  1. Question Assumptions

Oftentimes, our most damaging thought patterns are based on assumptions and generalizations. As you grow in self-awareness, take notice of when you make assumptions and then ask questions of yourself. Here are some questions to help identify any illogical thoughts:

    • Am I basing my thoughts on emotions or facts?
    • Is there any evidence that supports the accuracy of the thought?
    • Is there any evidence that challenges the accuracy?
    • What is the worst-case scenario, and how could I respond if that happens?
    • Is the situation truly black and white, or is there room for interpretation?

As you answer these questions, you will begin to identify holes in some of the illogical thought patterns that are causing anxiety. This will immediately begin to bring relief.

  1. Gather Evidence

Now that you are more aware of the negative thought patterns in your life, it’s time to look for evidence to find out what is really going on. If you notice a particular response always trips you up, record what triggers this response. In addition, make notes of how extreme it is in different situations, and any memories associated with the response. It’s also important to begin to intentionally change your response in small ways. Record the differences to help you create a new baseline for what is helpful and what is not.

  1. Create Different Thoughts

Another effective tool is to create alternative thoughts to replace the negative, anxiety-inducing thoughts. If you’ve done the work of clearly identifying destructive thoughts, you can purposely generate thoughts that provide an alternative truth. For instance: you arrive at the office and your colleague doesn’t say anything to you. Instead of assuming he’s angry or you’ve done something wrong, generate a new thought. “He must be really swamped this morning.” Giving yourself another possibility will change your mood for the better.

  1. Give Yourself Compassion

If you have a tendency toward self-critical thoughts, intentionally applying compassion when you mis-step will have a long-term positive effect on your overall mental health. As you are more kind to yourself, you will also find yourself thinking more generous thoughts about those around you.

Cognitive Restructuring Examples

Now, let’s take this out of the land of theory and give you some real-world cognitive restructuring examples. See if you can identify yourself in any of these situations and develop a game-plan for how you can handle the situation differently next time.

  1. Black and White Thinking

If you struggle in this area, this scenario might sound familiar. You have a co-worker you’ve grown to like and trust, but she does something that breaks your trust. For instance, she emails one of your clients to inform them of something without telling you. You feel betrayed. Black and white thinking would immediately lead you to “villainize” your colleague. Suspicion would set in and you would begin avoiding her. As you walk through the techniques above, you can find alternate possibilities and challenge your assumptions. Perhaps she was trying to help you by taking something off your plate. Catching these thoughts and looking for the gray area will save you stress and maybe even a friendship.

  1. Catastrophizing

“Catastrophizing” is the habit of dramatizing everyday situations for the worse. Your manager emails you at 11:30 PM asking to see you in his office first thing in the morning. You read the email just before you go to bed, and because of that, can’t sleep all night. You are sure that he wants to fire you because you turned in a report one day late. It may sound ridiculous, but how many of us have had thoughts like these? Catching this thought pattern and walking through the steps of questioning your assumptions and creating new thoughts is crucial. Come up with at least 5 good reasons your boss would want to see you. If you do this, you may just be able to get some sleep and show up rested and ready to perform!

  1. Rumination

Rumination is thinking about the same issue over and over in a way that is not useful. You get stuck in a loop and can’t get out. Ruminating usually centers around feelings of inadequacy. For example, if you typically struggle with a certain report or task because you feel you aren’t talented enough, you can change your reality by practicing the cognitive restructuring steps above. Self-compassion and gathering evidence would be particularly helpful in this case. For instance, if you’ve repeatedly done this task without any negative feedback, that alone is enough evidence to show your feelings of inadequacy are not founded in reality.

  1. Personalization

Personalization is when you believe that different situations and responses that have nothing to do with you are your fault. Imagine you walk into the conference room just before an important meeting. All of your colleagues immediately get quiet when you enter. Personalization will tell you they were talking about you behind your back. Instead of following this pattern of thought, come up with different reasons they might have become silent so quickly. Getting rid of the idea that the silence had anything to do with you will allow you to focus and bring your best self to the meeting.


As humans, we have the powerful ability to shape the way we experience our lives. Cognitive restructuring is one of the ways we can drastically improve the quality of life that we are living. As you begin to employ these techniques, you will find your thoughts and feelings slowly changing and lining up with reality, and will become a better performer in all aspects of your life and career!

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