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Cognitive Restructuring

A Cognitive Therapy Approach

In this treatment, individuals learn to question thought patterns—that is, cognitive distortions—that can become destructive and self-defeating and eventually to rebuild them in a more balanced and accurate way. Cognitive restructuring can help individuals:

    • Challenge and change hurtful or negative thoughts and reduce depression 
    • Lower stress, alleviate anxiety, and help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    • Replace unhealthy coping mechanisms, like substance abuse or eating disorders
    • Strengthen communication skills and build healthier relationships
    • Rebuild self-confidence and self-esteem 
    • Navigate difficult transitions, like divorce, illness or loss

Cognitive restructuring techniques

Self-monitoring: The ability to notice thoughts that spark negative feelings and states of mind or situations that make one vulnerable to cognitive distortions. For example: A student with anxiety might notice a pattern of catastrophizing during test taking and change the negative thought before it dominates. The practice of self-monitoring may include writing down thought patterns to help individuals notice distorted thought patterns more quickly.

Questioning assumptions: Therapists teach clients a Socratic questioning method to probe biased or illogical thoughts and assumptions, especially those that affect daily life. Questioning allows clients to consider less drastic possibilities than the catastrophic ones they may fear, by asking such questions as: 

    • Is this thought based on emotion or facts?
    • What evidence indicates this thought is accurate? Or, inaccurate?
    • Can this belief be tested? How?
    • What’s the worst that could happen? What is the response if the worst happens?
    • What other ways could this information be interpreted?
    • Is this a black-and-white situation or are there shades of gray?

Gathering evidence: Clients can track situations that trigger a response, including who they were with or what they were doing. They note how strong each response is and what memories come up as a result. Dislodging and replacing deeply embedded cognitive distortions requires evidence about how irrational they are.

Performing a cost-benefit analysis: Clients consider the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining cognitive distortions to recognize the harmful trade-offs they make every day. To help decide whether it is worth changing the pattern, clients may ask:

What is the benefit of calling oneself names (like “loser” or “idiot”)?

    • What are the short- and long-term costs of this thought pattern, emotionally and practically?
    • How does this thought pattern affect family, friends or others?
    • How does it advance or limit student or job performance?

Generating alternatives: Clients learn to find alternative, rational and positive explanations to replace deeply ingrained cognitive distortions by: 

  • Finding new ways of looking at situations, relationships and other events. For example, a student with a disappointing test score generalizes he is bad at school. Instead, he comes up with an alternative, such as changing his study habits, getting extra help or trying out a new relaxation technique before the next test. 
  • Replacing inaccurate or unhelpful thought patterns with positive affirmations. For example, an individual may repeat to herself she is a valued member of her work team, basing this affirmation on a list of her actual contributions and the positive work relationships she has built.


Learn more about Cognitive Therapies offered at CFI…



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