Cognitive restructuring is a technique that helps people change the way they think. It is part of numerous types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Cognitive restructuring involves adjusting unhelpful beliefs by identifying and challenging them. An example of this is helping people feel differently about things that worry or frustrate them.
A person can also use cognitive restructuring techniques in daily life to manage stress, help their career, or improve sleep. It requires no professional training, but a psychotherapist can help a person master the techniques.
Read on to learn more about cognitive restructuring.
Cognitive restructuring is a technique that involves restructuring, or changing, a person’s beliefs and thinking patterns. The aim of this is to reduce the impact that unhelpful thinking styles have on a person’s well-being.
Cognitive restructuring involves slowly replacing belief with one that is more accurate or helpful. Instead of predicting that everyone will dislike them if they show their true personality, a person might work toward a belief that some people will like them, while others might not — and that this is okay.
The goal of cognitive restructuring is not to make a person think positively, but rather to encourage thinking that is balanced and realistic. It may help a person think differently about a wide range of things, such as:
CBT is a specific type of cognitive restructuring. It differs from other forms of cognitive restructuring in that it:
- is a type of psychotherapy, which is one of the main treatments for mental health conditions
- is formulaic and systematic, typically following a set structure and progression
- often involves getting support from a counselor or therapist
By contrast, the broader category of cognitive restructuring is not just for mental health treatment. People can use it for this purpose, but they can also use it for general self-improvement.
Cognitive restructuring does not follow a specific list of steps. Instead, a person uses a range of techniques based on their own needs and the challenges they experience.
The aim of these techniques is to slowly alter a person’s way of thinking so that it becomes more balanced.
The Socratic method is an approach to teaching that involves asking a series of questions until a person gives either an incorrect answer or proves they have thoroughly sound reasoning.
People may come across this method in classrooms, but it can also be a useful technique for interrogating one’s own thoughts.
For example, on noticing that they are feeling worried, a person might ask themselves:
- What am I worried about?
- What do I think will happen?
- What will I do if that does happen?
- What does that matter?
- What made me have this thought?
- Is there another explanation or likely outcome?
In doing this, a person might realize their initial worry is unlikely to ever happen, or that if it did, that they would be okay.
Preventing thought errors
“Thought errors” are biases in the way people think. They can include:
- Catastrophizing. This is the practice of focusing on the worst-case scenario. People who catastrophize may feel the worst outcome is also the most likely.
- “All or nothing” thinking. This is thinking in extremes. For example, a person might believe that if they do not do something perfectly, they have completely failed.
- Overgeneralization. This is when a person takes one example of something and applies it broadly. For instance, a person might think that because they got one math problem wrong that they always get math problems wrong.
- Magnification. This involves making small problems into much more than they are. For example, sitting in traffic will not typically affect a person’s life in the long term, but focusing on how frustrating it is may cause a lot of stress in the moment.
Often, these thinking errors are the result of exaggerated or faulty beliefs that a person has learned, consciously or unconsciously, from other people or from past experiences. They may feel these beliefs are facts, but closer interrogation can reveal they have little evidence to support them.
Addressing emotional reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when a person concludes that, because they feel something, their thoughts must be true.
For example, if a person feels anxiety about a break-in taking place in their home, emotional reasoning would tell them that this is because a break-in is likely to happen. This reinforces their fear.
Cognitive restructuring encourages people to take a pause and question what the evidence is for this belief. If there is no evidence that theft is likely, then it shows that not every thought or emotion is necessarily true. Learning to discern realistic and unrealistic thoughts may help reduce anxiety.
Several studies have found that cognitive restructuring can help with mental health.
In comparison to care as usual, all three treatments improved outcomes. However, there were no significant differences in improvements between the three interventions. This suggests that cognitive restructuring works, but that it is similar in effectiveness to CBT and behavioral activation.
A 2018 study used an app to deliver cognitive restructuring, or a therapy known as cognitive defusion, to people with a pattern of high self-criticism. Both interventions improved self-criticism and distress, and reduced unhelpful thoughts and attitudes.
But cognitive defusion showed a more consistent pattern of improvement. This suggests that cognitive restructuring can help, but that it might not be the most consistently effective method.
People can do cognitive restructuring anywhere, on their own or with the help of a therapist or app. This makes it a potentially appealing option to people who want to avoid, or cannot access, a therapist.
Cognitive restructuring works best when a person uses it to challenge thoughts that have little support, or that draw upon incorrect ideas. As such, this technique has some limitations, such as:
- Correct thoughts. Sometimes, a person’s assessment of a situation or behavior is accurate. The stakes may be high, or a person may have done something they seriously regret. In these cases, a person practicing cognitive restructuring on their own may be unsure of how to apply it.
- Trauma. Traumatic experiences have an impact on how the brain and nervous system work and can create deep-rooted beliefs and views on life that are hard to change. A person with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may know that an event from the past is unlikely to happen again, but this may not prevent them from experiencing symptoms.
- Self-awareness. All types of cognitive restructuring, including CBT, involve a level of self-awareness. A person needs to be able to listen to their own thoughts during daily life and take time to analyze them. For some, this is difficult. People practicing cognitive restructuring alone may also not see their own biases as clearly as someone else could.
- Blame. Some people can interpret cognitive restructuring as a technique that assumes all negative emotions come from incorrect beliefs, and therefore, that any anxiety, anger, or sadness a person feels must be their fault.
For some, trying cognitive restructuring with a professional can help solve some of these limitations. A therapist can direct the process in another direction, prevent a person from self-blame, or recommend trauma-informed approaches where relevant.
If a person would like to try cognitive restructuring for themselves, there are a number of ways to get started, such as:
- workbooks or worksheets
- online programs or courses
- online or in-person therapy
Some resources for cognitive restructuring are available for free online. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) has a handout that goes through some exercises. UMass Chan Medical School also has cognitive restructuring information specifically for managing insomnia.
A person can get help with cognitive restructuring by choosing a therapist who practices this technique.
Anyone can do this, whether they have symptoms of a mental health condition or not. However, a person may want to consider seeking professional help if:
- they do not make progress with cognitive restructuring on their own
- they experience intense emotional distress
- their thoughts or feelings affect their ability to function
- they have substance misuse
- they have thought about harming themselves
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Cognitive restructuring is a broad group of techniques that help a person identify and ultimately change unhelpful beliefs and thought patterns. It may work well for people who have anxious or obsessive thoughts, or for those with high levels of self-criticism. However, the technique has some limitations.
Trying cognitive restructuring alone may make it more difficult for a person to observe their own biases. Additionally, people with some conditions, such as PTSD, may need more specialized treatment.
If a person finds cognitive restructuring techniques difficult or does not make as much progress as they would like alone, they can consider seeking help from a therapist.