Cognitive Restructuring

Reducing Stress by Changing Your Thinking

Cognitive Restructuring

Turn negative into positive.

© iStockphoto/Professor25

Michael has just handed a report to his boss, Jan. She reads it, thanks him for his work, and makes a number of small criticisms.

Unfortunately, one of these comments "touches a raw nerve" with Michael, and he storms back to his office feeling angry and upset. 

Michael knows that he needs to get over this, so that his negative mood doesn't affect others. He takes a few deep breaths, and writes down why he felt attacked by Jan. He then remembers that the overall quality of his work impressed her, and that she wants him to improve and grow. He also enjoyed working on the project, and, deep down, he knows he did a good job. After taking a few minutes to reframe the situation, Michael no longer feels angry. He calls Jan to apologize for his behavior, and then uses her suggestions to improve his report.

In this situation, Michael used cognitive restructuring to overcome negative, reactive thinking. We'll look at how you can use cognitive restructuring in this article.

What is Cognitive Restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring is a useful technique for understanding unhappy feelings and moods, and for challenging the sometimes-wrong "automatic beliefs" that can lie behind them. As such, you can use it to reframe the unnecessary negative thinking that we all experience from time to time.

Bad moods are unpleasant, they can reduce the quality of your performance, and they undermine your relationships with others. Cognitive restructuring helps you to change the negative or distorted thinking that often lies behind these moods. As such, it helps you approach situations in a more positive frame of mind.

Cognitive restructuring was developed by psychologist Albert Ellis in the mid-1950s, based on the earlier work of others, and it's a core component in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). You can use CBT to control and change negative thoughts, which are sometimes linked with damaging behaviors.

Applications

Cognitive restructuring has been used successfully to treat a wide variety of conditions, including depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addictions, anxiety, social phobias, relationship issues, and stress.

For example, a 2007 study found that cognitive restructuring helped participants who experienced severe grief, while a 2003 study discovered that it reduced the symptoms and effects of PTSD.

These uses are beyond the scope of this article, and you should consult a qualified medical practitioner if you are experiencing issues like these. However, you can use the technique yourself to reframe less serious, day-to-day negative thoughts.

For example, you can use it to overcome negative thinking before you speak in public  , or to improve your mood when you have a bad day. You can also use it to think positively before you go into a performance review or a job interview, or before you engage in a difficult conversation. It's also helpful for overcoming fear of failure   and fear of success  , and for beating self-sabotage  .

How to use Cognitive Restructuring

Download our free worksheet, and follow the steps below to use the cognitive restructuring technique.

This framework is based on the steps in Drs Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky's book, "Mind Over Mood," which is well worth reading for a deeper understanding of this technique.

Step 1: Calm Yourself

If you're still upset or stressed by the thoughts you want to explore, you may find it hard to concentrate on using the tool. Use meditation   or deep breathing   to calm yourself down if you feel particularly stressed or upset.

Step 2: Identify the Situation

Start by describing the situation that triggered your negative mood, and write this into the appropriate box on the worksheet.

Step 3: Analyze Your Mood

Next, write down the mood, or moods, that you felt during the situation.

Here, moods are the fundamental feelings that we have, but they are not thoughts about the situation. Drs Greenberger and Padesky suggest an easy way to distinguish moods from thoughts: you can usually describe moods in one word, while thoughts are more complex.

For example, "He trashed my suggestion in front of my co-workers" would be a thought, while the associated moods might be humiliation, frustration, anger, or insecurity.

Step 4: Identify Automatic Thoughts

Now, write down the natural reactions, or "automatic thoughts," you experienced when you felt the mood. In the example above, your thoughts might be:

  • "Maybe my analysis skills aren't good enough."
  • "Have I failed to consider these things?"
  • "He hasn't liked me since…"
  • "He's so rude and arrogant!"
  • "No one likes me."
  • "But my argument is sound."
  • "This undermines my future with this company."

In this example, the most distressing thoughts (the "hot thoughts") are likely to be "Maybe my analysis skills aren't good enough," and, "No one likes me."

Step 5: Find Objective Supportive Evidence

Identify the evidence that objectively supports your automatic thoughts. In our example, you might write the following:

  • "The meeting moved on and decisions were made, but my suggestion was ignored."
  • "He identified a flaw in one of my arguments."

Your goal is to look objectively at what happened, and then to write down specific events or comments that led to your automatic thoughts.

Step 6: Find Objective Contradictory Evidence

Next, identify and write down evidence that contradicts the automatic thought. In our example, this might be:

  • "The flaw was minor and did not alter the conclusions."
  • "The analysis was objectively sound, and my suggestion was realistic and well-founded."
  • "I was top of my class when I trained in the analysis method."
  • "My clients respect my analysis, and my opinion."

As you can see, these statements are fairer and more rational than the reactive thoughts.

Step 7: Identify Fair and Balanced Thoughts

By this stage, you've looked at both sides of the situation. You should now have the information you need to take a fair, balanced view of what happened.

If you still feel uncertain, discuss the situation with other people, or test the question in some other way.

When you come to a balanced view, write these thoughts down. The balanced thoughts in this example might now include:

  • "I am good at this sort of analysis. Other people respect my abilities."
  • "My analysis was reasonable, but not perfect."
  • "There was an error, but it didn't affect the validity of the conclusions."
  • "The way he handled the situation was not appropriate."
  • "People were surprised and a little shocked by the way he handled my suggestion." (This comment would have followed an informal conversation with other people at the meeting.)

Step 8: Monitor Your Present Mood

You should now have a clearer view of the situation, and you're likely to find that your mood has improved. Write down how you feel.

Next, reflect on what you could do about the situation. (By taking a balanced view, the situation may cease to be important, and you might decide that you don't need to take action.)

Finally, create some positive affirmations   that you can use to counter any similar automatic thoughts in the future.

Important Reminder:

Use the approach to cognitive restructuring described here to address occasional negative thinking. Seek the advice of a qualified medical professional if you experience serious or persistent negative thoughts.

Key Points

Cognitive restructuring is useful for understanding what lies behind negative moods. These may undermine our performance, or damage our relationships with other people.

To use cognitive restructuring, work through the following process:

  • Calm yourself.
  • Write down the situation that triggered the negative thoughts.
  • Identify the moods that you felt in the situation.
  • Write down the automatic thoughts you experienced when you felt the mood. The most significant of these are your "hot thoughts."
  • Identify the evidence that supports these hot thoughts.
  • Identify the evidence that contradicts the hot thoughts.
  • Now, identify fair, balanced thoughts about the situation.
  • Finally, observe your mood now, and decide on your next steps.
Go through this process when you experience a negative mood, or when you feel fear, apprehension, or anxiety about a person or event.

 

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Comments (11)
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi mclough1,
    Welcome to the club and glad to hear you like this tool!

    Cognitive Restructuring is indeed a great way to stop ourselves, or others, when we get caught up in negative emotional states to step back, assess the situation more objectively, and hopefully shift our thinking to something more positive.

    Brynn, thanks for sharing your example when coaching a member of your team. It really does go to show us all how our reactions to situations can be out of proportion to the incident. Simply by stopping and asking ourselves some questions can help.

    I agree with you that for many people how fragile our inner selves really are and that we are a work in progress towards building up a strong and resilient self!

    mclough1, in what types of situations have you been able to use or foresee using the tool?

    Midgie
  • ladyb wrote Over a month ago
    I couldn't agree more! I use cognitive restructuring all the time. I might not go through the whole formal process each time but I find it helps to just sit back and look at the situation from a different perspective and ask myself what "really" is causing my reaction. I also use it a lot in informal coaching with my team. Some people truly wear their hearts on their sleeves and if I see someone is in a foul mood I'll the to pull them aside and use some of the questions associated with cognitive restructuring to help them.

    When you ask a few pointed questions people will often tell you what they are feeling. A common one I get is 'frustrated.' So we explore their frustration and it often points toward an interpersonal issue. So we talk about evidence that shows the offending person actually meant to offend and evidence that refutes this assertion. Then we try and balance our thoughts to get a braided perspective and more often than not, the frustrated feelings are replaced with empathy or maybe a plan to assert oneself better.

    The more years I live (and manage and lead teams) the more I realize how fragile our inner selves really are. If we could all sit back and take a look at what we are feeling inside and deal with our emotions directly, we could accomplish so much more. I'm still a work in progress myself mind you!

    Brynn
  • mclough1 wrote Over a month ago
    I love the cognitive restructuring tool. It can be put to immediate use by a person after any event, situation, etc. You don't need to deeply understand the concept but just allow yourself to walk through the questions. Becuase it asks for objective evidence in two areas it helps the user to make a line between emotion and fact which is always very helpful. Great tool!
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Everyone

    We’ve given this popular article a review, and the updated version is now at
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newTCS_81.php

    Discuss the article by replying to this post!

    Thanks

    James
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All

    In this week's Featured Favorite, we're looking at how cognitive restructuring can help you to get rid of unhappy moods and stress.

    Find out more by clicking the link below.
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/page ... TCS_81.php

    Best wishes

    Rachel
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    Don, I agree with you. Of course I don't feel hurt if all my ideas aren't always accepted, but the way in which the criticism is given plays a role in how I feel. Some people really have a talent for making you feel like a complete idiot, while others can reject your plan/idea respectfully and in a less negative manner. What I learnt from that is to be very mindful in how I give criticism and to allow the other person to leave the situation with dignity.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • dp7622 wrote Over a month ago
    Hi JB,
    I'm not sure that the example trivializes the issue. It sounds like for you, that situation wouldn't trigger a poor mood but I know I've been in meetings where I came away feeling like a bit of pond scum because my comments/ideas were at the least dismissed and at the most ridiculed. I think you're fortunate you don't take offense in these sorts of situations. My personal experience is that I take pride in my suggestions and don't offer ideas or comments if I don't stand behind them. So when someone is callous with their response it hurts. And I agree, we should be able to consider the source and if it's a personal attack not allow that attack to impact our self worth. I'm not there yet though and I still get stung. So the example resonated with me and I was able to relate to it and that's probably what was missing for you. Taking the steps that are outlined the tool is very useful so I hope that you can get past the example and will try it out. I trust you've also seen the article on rational thinking. That was another one that I found particularly helpful when dealing with the negative self talk we all seem to engage in from time to time.

    Don
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi JB

    Apologies for the delay in getting back to you - my Internet access has been extremely flaky in the last few days...

    Firstly, I think that how you may perceive the example will depend (among other things) on the organizational or business culture that you're used to, and on your own experience and self-confidence within meetings.

    Some countries (for example, the US) and some organizations (for example, investment banks) can have cultures in which very robust exchanges take place, and people just accept these and move on without worrying too much about them. If these communication styles were used in other countries (for example, the UK and Japan) or in other types of organization, they'd cause intense upset and, possibly, significant overt or covert retaliation.

    As well as this, people can tend to become tougher emotionally the more experienced they get. An experienced businessperson may just "brush off" things that would profoundly upset a career-starter...

    Secondly, this draws on approaches to cognitive therapy, which is used by trained practitioners to deal with potentially life-threatening conditions like depression. If people are experiencing situations like these, they absolutely must approach an appropriately qualified medical practitioner rather than seeking to "self-medicate". This is why we emphasize that this is a technique to use for normal, mild negative thinking rather than for more significant or persistent situations; and it's why we use quite a mild example.

    I hope that this puts a bit more context on things!

    James
  • jpb555 wrote Over a month ago
    I am guilty of "negative self-talk" and and I had expectations that this would be a great article to provide some steps to help turn things around. Unfortunately I think that the example scenario doesn't set-up a useful perspective and trivializes a legitimate issue for many people.

    The scenario sets up with someone making a suggestion, in a team meeting? We don't know what had preceded this to motivate the suggestion. Then the person who speaks next "trashes" the suggestion which triggers a negative mood in our person.

    First of all the investment to make a suggestion at a meeting is not huge, it comes with the territory you should be willing and able to offer your opinion, if it is not expected you probably shouldn't be at the meeting. I think that if in the example the person had made a presentation rather than a suggestion it would obviously be a bigger time investment and if it were "trashed" the person would have more right to be in a bad mood.

    The more important point that the article completely missed, and I base this on many years of experience in public speaking; Did the reply "trash" the Person or their Idea? If it was a personal attack it is inappropriate. If the idea/suggestion was attacked then there is a clear difference of opinion and it shouldn't require the full blown analysis of the bad mood.

    Finally, I think to feel that someone "trashed" something is over-reactive and requires context, you have to consider the source of the comment. We've all worked with people who don't think before they speak; or maybe the person proposed an "out there idea" something new to the people that have "always done something that way, so why change" mentality and the comment could be "trashed unfairly... again at least there is context which this article lacked.

    I would be pleased to get some feedback on these thoughts...though I see the comments date back a few years!

    Thanks though for the reference to the book Mind Over Mood, I may look for that in the library or purchase it .

    Regards, JB
  • bigk wrote Over a month ago
    Hi

    I agree about the usefulness and context for the analysis needed.
    I also agree energy is better used in directly finding the upsides, even if it seems there are none.

    The tool helps to identify or focus on not to associate the thoughts or feelings, changing these to positive benefits and outcomes needed. It helps focus attention in difficult situations where the task is difficult or the outcome expected must be achieved, helping to minimize resistance.

    I would like to see the strength of the positive effects highlighted more.
    As Yolande said, it seems un-necessary to focus on the down or affected items and to see the uses or positives in the item being assessed as a natural requirement.
    However issues with complexity certainly sometime need the analysis or understanding for result or self development, using the tool as a pre or post item for analysis.

    Another question for comment.
    The affected areas are "hot"; the items needed are "not hot". Could these not be called something other than "not hot"?
    I know it seems it's working in reverse but "cool" (perhaps) instead of "not hot" seems to give instant result to highlight the positives needed or if these are less than expected, you can identify the extra to be added or if there are skills or techniques required to achieve the required stress management or task management.

    Is cool a good descriptor for skill or quality in the qualities or skills or attributes?
    The "cool" word does not yet seem to fit here, but after some research on colour theory and a red and blue balance (green or purple) it suggests both these colours are equally useful in colour or association, cool might be usable.
    Blue could still be warm and not only cool, hot does not always imply red.
    In my own assessment I would prefer to find another suggestion. Having a further look at this.
    Any ideas or comments?

    More thinking... a good tool.
    Research here is for another subjective or objective issue; motivation or, and, performance.

    Bigk
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