What is Cognitive Restructuring?

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  • Last Modified Date: 06 April 2020
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In cognitive restructuring, people evaluate their thinking reactions to different scenarios and change negative reactions to positive, or at least neutral ones. People may not be that conscious of what they’re thinking, and those with conditions like depression or other issues may reinforce problems with deeply negative thoughts. With cognitive restructuring, a tool used in behavioral therapy approaches like rational emotive and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), people are taught to become more conscious of their reactions and then from a conscious perspective to change their thoughts so that negative thinking patterns minimize.

Initially, though the work sounds simple, it can take effort for people to become conscious of how they’re reacting to difficult or trying circumstances. Therapies like CBT make use of notebooks or worksheets that can be filled out to bring these reactions to a fully conscious level. It can also be challenging to change negative thinking to more positive thinking, especially when people suffer from significant underlying problems. Cognitive restructuring is only one way of addressing serious disorders, and CBT and other therapies help people evaluate emotion or thinking reactions from other perspectives as well.

Though challenging to do, an example of cognitive restructuring make this process fairly easy to understand. For instance, a person might have persistent trouble with body image and that person has to shop for a pair of jeans. As she is gazing in the mirror, a variety of thinking reactions occur to her.


Were she to voice her thoughts, they might sound something like the following: “Oh, these jeans make my rear end look huge. Nothing I can ever buy makes me look any good. I am so fat. I am always going to look terrible.”

This kind of negative engagement with the self reinforces the bad feelings the woman already has about herself. She may reinforce her own issues in many settings, such as every time she dresses and undresses or passes a mirror. In early efforts with cognitive restructuring, the woman would hear these thoughts and then reframe or restructure them.

She’d come up with a more neutral or positive statements, such as: “Maybe it’s just this pair of jeans that doesn’t look too good, or I may be overestimating how bad these look. They do fit really well at the waist and are just the right length.”

Such reframing may reset thought patterns over time. It’s possible it builds new neural pathways. It can’t only be practiced occasionally, because the goal is to eventually make this reframing automatic, and that takes repetition.

Cognitive restructuring doesn’t have to be greatly complex. A person stuck in traffic begins to think “Why did this happen to me? Everything always goes wrong.” Instead, the person could view the traffic and say, “Well, I guess we’re all stuck. That’s too bad.” To strip thinking reactions from negative emotional content that hurts the person is the main goal, and as people get better at this, they often find improvement in underlying conditions, especially when this method is practiced with other behavioral therapy techniques.


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Cognitive restructuring is a very helpful tool when dealing with low self-esteem.

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