You may have never heard of “cognitive restructuring,” but it’s a real way to adjust your thoughts, make them more positive, and be more productive. Though it’s usually something you go over in therapy, you can still be mindful of it in your real, day-to-day life and reap its benefits.
What is cognitive restructuring?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines cognitive restructuring as “a skill for carefully examining your thinking when you are feeling upset or distressed about something.” The goal is to change how you think in moments of stress so that your thoughts can become more balanced. The less-ideal, stressful thoughts you may experience are cognitive distortions and aren’t helpful for your overall wellbeing or productivity.
Negative feelings associated with certain actions or events can stall your progress on them, which can lead to more negative feelings as your tasks pile up. Whether you’re too sad to clean, too anxious to run to the store, or too stressed to do your work, addressing the negative feelings head-on and restructuring them can help you move past the hump and get it all done in a way that still feels safe — and even good.
Five steps to practicing cognitive restructuring
Here’s what you do, per the APA:
- Write down your upsetting situation, whether it’s an actual event (like cleaning your house, doing your schoolwork, or having to talk to someone) or a memory of an event. You just need a one sentence description.
- Identify the most upsetting feeling you had. Even if you had a lot of feelings, pick the strongest one. It may help you to categorise them into fear and anxiety; sadness and depression; guilt and shame; or anger. Keep the strongest feeling in mind for the rest of the steps.
- Identify your thoughts about the event or situation as they relate to your strongest feeling. If your strongest feeling is fear, ask yourself what you’re afraid of. If it’s guilt, ask yourself what “bad” thing you’ve actually done. This is where you get specific as you try to get at the root cause of your negative feeling. So, if you’re anxious about studying for a test and keep putting it off, identify what you’re afraid of (like not understanding the material or getting a bad grade). Write the thought out longform: “I feel anxious about studying because I am worried I won’t understand or retain enough information to do well on the test anyway.”
- Here, evaluate the accuracy of your upsetting thought. Start with any evidence that could support the thought, then probe it. Why do you think you won’t understand or retain the material you have to study? Write down any evidence, but then ask yourself why your thought might be wrong. Explore the evidence against the thought, including other ways of looking at the situation, what someone else might think about it, and whether your feelings are based on facts.
- Once you’ve listed all the evidence for and against your negative thought, make an ultimate decision, placing the most weight on the strongest and most objective information. Cross out anything weak, subjective, or based in feelings; circle anything substantiated by hard evidence.
Doing this when you feel immobilized by anxiety or sadness can help you see a path forward and if you do it enough, dismissing negativity and focusing instead on facts — like that you’ve aced tests before or that you’ve maintained your house’s cleanliness in the past, or that doing badly on a test or having an untidy home don’t make you an all-around bad person — will come more naturally. Best of all, you can prove the facts right by then getting the tasks done, strengthening them for next time.