What is Cognitive Restructuring?
Cognitive Restructuring is the process at the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s based on the concept that an individual’s perception of a situation is more closely connected to their reaction than the situation itself. Sometimes the reaction is instantaneous, and the underlying belief or thought can pass so quickly it goes unnoticed. These immediate thoughts can be strongly influenced by what are called cognitive distortions.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions are unhelpful filters that influence the way we interpret the world around us. Everyone carries a certain number of them, which influence their reactions to situations. Some of these distortions we commonly see:
Some of these distortions we commonly see:
- Personalizing – taking things personally that were not, and believing events are a result of their behavior when there are other likely reasons.
- Mindreading – projecting thoughts and motivations onto another person where these may be something else entirely.
- Negative predictions – expecting that bad things will happen.
- All-or-nothing – it isn’t a success unless every piece is entirely successful.
- Catastrophizing – Unpleasant events are catastrophes, or predicting catastrophes in neutral situations.
- Should and must – Belief that you need to do things even when they may not be important
- There are dozens of others that people, especially those struggling with anxiety, depression, or any number of mental health challenges, encounter regularly.
Identifying Cognitive Distortions and Unhelpful Beliefs
Cognitive restructuring is the process of identifying and challenging these cognitive distortions. This is not as simple as it may sound. Because these distortions are more of a reflex than conscious thought, a student often needs to start with the physical sensations surrounding the emotional reaction they illicit. By asking questions, they can work back from there: What am I feeling? (heart racing, rapid breathing, etc). What emotion is behind these sensations? What thought created this emotional reaction? What was the belief underlying that thought?
Once these questions have been answered and the underlying belief brought to light, it can be evaluated. What about the situation it arose from supports or doesn’t support the belief and thought? Can there be other explanations for what happened? Our Therapists guide students through several questions that the student can use later on their own to evaluate their thoughts and reactions.
What is Metacognition?
This process of thinking about thoughts is called metacognition. When we have a strong emotional reaction, we might feel overwhelmed and helpless. By examining these emotions, we can gain insight into what causes and worsens them. Through metacognition, we gain self-awareness and a better understanding of our thinking, this alone can begin to help us distance ourselves from unhealthy responses.
After looking at a belief logically and objectively, as if from the outside, a conclusion can be reached: is this reaction supported by the answers, or not? If not, it’s time to come up with a more helpful thought to replace the one influenced by an unhelpful belief. Through practice, students can develop the skills for this process to happen more and more spontaneously and naturally when situations arise. These skills are empowering, allowing us to address our negative emotions rather than waiting for them to pass on their own.