Did you know that patterns can be found in how you think and feel about yourself, others, and the world around you? Patterns of negative thinking, or cognitive distortions, can affect how we view and interact with the world. Cognitive distortions are often unhelpful, self-critical, and accepted as true without any self-reflection or evidence to support them.
These patterns are made up of automatic thoughts, which are referred to as “automatic” because they are spontaneous, brief, and fleeting. They often pop up, without us even being aware of them, in response to a situation. Failing to address cognitive distortions can affect your mood and behaviors, which can affect your relationships with others, performance at school or work, and your wellbeing in general.
Luckily, therapists have developed a strategy known as cognitive restructuring that can help you combat negative thinking patterns. During cognitive restructuring, you work to identify automatic thoughts that occurred right after you recognized an unpleasant shift in your emotions in response to a situation. Then, you evaluate the accuracy of those thoughts, and restructure the thoughts to make them as accurate and valid as possible. This technique can help break the cycle of negative thinking by balancing your thoughts to avoid emotional distress.
Cognitive Restructuring in Action
Scenario: You slept through your alarm and missed your 8:00 AM class for the third time this month because you have made a habit of staying up late to scroll through social media.
Step One: Identify thoughts and feelings.
You think to yourself “I’m lazy and irresponsible, I’m going to fail this class,” which leaves you feeling defeated, worried, and stressed.
Step Two: Identify evidence that does and does not support this.
Sleeping through your alarm happens more than you’d like it to. However, you realize that this is because your sleep schedule is inconsistent, and you have never had to be at a class this early. You are performing well in all your other classes that take place later in the day. While attendance and participation for this class count toward your overall grade, you know that there are several days left to accrue extra points, and you have succeeded in passing all your classes in previous semesters.
Step Three: Restructure your thoughts.
“I may have slept through my alarm, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a lazy person. This situation made me realize how exhausted I am when I stay up extremely late. I know that I’ve struggled with classes before, and I still managed to pass.”
You feel more emotionally balanced. You saw this situation as an opportunity to explore and process your experience in a fair way, which resulted in decreased stress and anxiety. Additionally, the new view of the situation has helped you to realize what you need to do to be successful, such as paying close attention to your sleep hygiene and making changes to your morning and nighttime routine. For example, winding down at night with decaf tea, journaling or meditating before bed, having a consistent bedtime and wake time, and stopping your phone usage an hour before you plan to sleep.
While you certainly can try to implement this strategy on your own, it can be tough to do when you’re first starting out. This is because we tend to have a difficult time pointing out flaws in our thinking, and we are often our own worst critics. With patience and practice or help from a cognitive therapist, you can learn to examine, understand, and challenge negative thoughts that often lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Ackerman, C. (2022, May 4). CBT techniques: 25 cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets. Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/cbt-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-techniques-worksheets/
Suni, E. (2022, March 11). What is sleep hygiene? Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene
Therapist Aid. (2017, February 27). Cognitive restructuring (guide). Therapist Aid. https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/cognitive-restructuring