What is Cognitive Restructuring? An Introduction to Changing Negative Thought Patterns

Medically reviewed by: Erica Munro, MSc
Thursday, May 16

Many people have negative thoughts from time to time. You might think no one likes you if you’re not invited to a friend’s party. Or you might think you always fail at things if you have trouble handling a work project.

Occasional negative thoughts are common. But they can turn into negative thought patterns that affect your life in many ways. For example, many individuals with depression or anxiety struggle with these unhelpful thinking patterns. 

Cognitive restructuring offers a way to recognize and change these kinds of thoughts. In the following sections, we’ll explore this technique in more detail, including how it can help with mental health conditions and the steps involved.

What is cognitive restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring is a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you identify and replace maladaptive or unhelpful thought patterns. These disruptive patterns can occur with different mental health conditions and disorders. 

In fact, cognitive restructuring is used to treat eating disorders, depression, substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other disorders. It helps individuals with these disorders learn to notice negative thought patterns and work on changing them. 

The three Cs of cognitive restructuring 

Cognitive restructuring involves a few main steps for recognizing and replacing maladaptive thinking patterns. The following is a helpful way to remember these steps:

  • Catch it: Identify negative thought patterns when they occur.
  • Check it: Ask questions to challenge these thoughts, such as “Is this accurate?”  
  • Change it: Replace unhelpful thought patterns with positive or adaptive ones.

Understanding cognitive distortions 

Everyone experiences cognitive distortions from time to time. These happen when you have unhelpful thoughts about yourself, other people, or even the world in general that may not be accurate or true. 

When you believe these thoughts and regard them as facts over and over, negative thinking patterns can develop. Below, we’ll go over several examples of common cognitive distortions:

  • Overgeneralization: Thinking that an isolated incident is an ongoing pattern of failure 
  • Personalization: Thinking that you’re responsible for something, even if it’s out of your control
  • Polarization: All-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking that can result in unrealistic expectations 
  • Catastrophizing: Assuming the worst-case scenario about something, even if it’s highly unlikely to be true 
  • Emotional reasoning: Thinking that your emotions represent how things are in reality  
  • Jumping to conclusions: Making negative assumptions about something with no supporting evidence or “mind reading”
  • Blaming: Believing that others are responsible for your emotions, such as making you feel bad or mad 
  • Discounting the positive: Being aware of positives, but thinking they don’t have any value or don’t matter

Is cognitive restructuring the same as CBT?

Cognitive restructuring and CBT may seem similar, but they aren’t interchangeable terms. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) refers to a type of psychotherapy or talk therapy modality. 

CBT involves identifying, understanding, and replacing negative thoughts and behaviors. Cognitive restructuring is one technique that’s often used in CBT to accomplish this. 

How does cognitive restructuring help in treating mental health disorders?

People with depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders often have maladaptive thought patterns. For example, someone with an anxiety disorder might engage in overgeneralization or catastrophizing. 

Cognitive restructuring provides a way to learn to recognize these thinking patterns and build adaptive ways to cope with stress. Below, we’ll go over different ways that this technique can help manage mental health conditions. 

Identifying negative thought patterns 

You may not realize that you have unhelpful thinking patterns. But these thoughts become automatic — especially when you’re faced with challenging situations or stress. 

Cognitive restructuring helps you become aware of these patterns. You learn to identify these thoughts and understand how they influence your behaviors and feelings. 

For example, someone might realize that they tend to engage in black-and-white thinking or jump to conclusions frequently. Recognizing these patterns is the first step in the cognitive restructuring process. 

Challenging distorted thoughts 

Becoming aware of negative thought patterns means you can move on to challenging them. Instead of automatically accepting these thoughts, you can question their validity with help from your therapist. 

How does this work? You and your therapist may ask certain questions as a way of examining evidence for and against unhelpful thinking patterns. For example, you might ask if the thought is really accurate or if it’s helpful. 

Challenging dysfunctional thoughts might also involve exploring alternative explanations. For example, someone who personalizes stressful situations might look for other possible explanations for what happened — rather than blaming themselves.

Developing rational alternatives 

Maladaptive thought patterns tend to cause a significant amount of emotional distress. Identifying and challenging these thoughts is a helpful start to reducing this stress. But they also need to be replaced with thoughts that are more accurate and balanced.

Cognitive restructuring helps you develop these alternatives to negative thought patterns. For example, someone with depression who engages in discarding the positive can learn to replace this pattern with one that acknowledges and appreciates the positive.    

Improved coping skills 

Having adaptive ways to handle stress or triggers is an important part of managing mental health problems. This involves learning effective coping skills. Cognitive restructuring helps with building these kinds of skills. 

Instead of automatically accepting negative thoughts as reality, you learn to change them into helpful thoughts. This provides better ways of dealing with future stressful situations or triggers.   

For example, someone who engages in blaming others for their emotions can learn to accurately evaluate these situations and accept responsibility for their own emotions. This can help them cope with stressful events more adaptively.   

The 5 steps to cognitive restructuring 

What steps are involved in going from recognizing maladaptive thinking patterns to replacing them with helpful ones? The exact cognitive restructuring techniques that a mental health professional uses may vary. But in the following sections, we’ll walk you through the main steps that are part of this process. 

1.  Identify the situation 

The first step in cognitive restructuring involves thinking about the specific event or scenario that triggered emotional distress or negative thoughts. What caused these thoughts and emotions? 

Note that the scenario can be either a memory of something stressful that happened in the past or a recent event, like being left out of a get-together with friends.  

During therapy sessions, your therapist may ask you to describe this scenario in detail. Identifying the triggering situation or event lays the groundwork for moving on to the next step in this process. 

2.  Identify the most upsetting feeling 

When the event happened, you might have felt multiple emotions. But which one was the strongest? This might have been anger, guilt, fear, sadness, or another emotion. 

Focus on the most intense feeling you experienced during this situation. Doing this helps you understand how it has affected your well-being. For example, someone who experienced strong feelings of shame from an event might end up engaging in self-blame or similar negative thought patterns that affect their emotional wellness.  

3.  Articulate your thoughts about the situation 

The next step is focusing on your thinking during the situation. What thoughts or beliefs went through your mind at the time? Doing this helps you understand how those thoughts influenced your emotions — and may have led to emotional distress. 

For example, someone’s thoughts about being laid off from work might have focused on how unfair it was or how they felt wronged. These thoughts may have triggered intense feelings of anger and led to cognitive distortions, such as blaming others for their emotions. 

Once you’ve identified your own thoughts during the initial situation, you’ll be ready to go to the next step in cognitive restructuring. 

4.  Evaluate the accuracy of your upsetting thought 

Negative thought patterns can make it easy to accept upsetting thoughts as fact. But it’s important to evaluate their validity. This can help you realize and understand that troubling thoughts may not be as accurate as they seem. 

How do you do this? Together, you and your therapist can analyze evidence that supports the upsetting thought and evidence that goes against it. This helps you evaluate the thought’s accuracy. 

When you’ve explored the evidence for and against it, you can work on reframing or developing alternative perspectives that are more balanced and accurate. For example, you might ask yourself if there’s another way of looking at what happened or if you’re overestimating your responsibility in the event. 

5.  Make a decision 

After analyzing the situation, you can tackle the next and final step in cognitive restructuring. This involves deciding on a way of thinking or a course of action that’s more in line with reality — instead of letting a negative thought pattern and emotional distress take control. 

Doing this benefits your mental health overall and allows you to rewrite the cognitive script in your head. When faced with a similar event or scenario in the future, you can use the new way of thinking or course of action you decided on. 

For example, let’s say you miss a work deadline on an important project. Instead of overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, or blaming others, you turn to your new way of thinking, such as forgiving yourself and improving your time management skills to avoid missing future deadlines. 

Cognitive restructuring example 

What does the entire process of cognitive restructuring look like? Below, we’ll go through an example of how this technique works. 

  • Situation: I interviewed for a new job, but I didn’t get it. 
  • Feelings: Mainly anxious, but also anger and disappointment
  • Thoughts: I’ll never get hired for a job. I’m just not good enough. I feel like a failure. 
  • Evidence that supports the thought: I didn’t have all the skills the employer listed in the job description. I don’t have as much experience in that kind of work. 
  • Evidence that doesn’t support the thought: I’ve had steady employment before. I have some of the skills the job requires. 
  • Alternative/balanced thought: I can always look for other jobs that better fit my experience and skills. I can also work on improving my job interviewing skills.
  • Outcome: I can handle this setback and do better next time. I feel much calmer. 

Meet with a therapist with SonderMind

Dealing with negative thought patterns can affect your emotional and mental well-being. But cognitive restructuring can help you learn to recognize these thoughts and change them to more helpful ones. 

A therapist can guide you through this process with expert care to help you build more effective coping skills, and improve your mental wellness overall. However, finding a therapist may feel intimidating — but it doesn’t have to. SonderMind can connect you with the right therapist to address your needs and help you meet your therapeutic goals. 

Ready to take the first step in your cognitive restructuring journey? Start with SonderMind today.


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