By Dr. Bev Snyder
I Corinthians 14: 20 “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil, be infants, but in your thinking, be adults.”
II Peter 3:1 “I have written to you … to stimulate wholesome thinking.”
Thinking like an adult may well involve training your brain to think differently and to undo some fault-filled habits in the way you process incoming information. And wholesome thinking, I take to mean thinking like an adult who is capable of clear, rational thought without distortions or endless negative thoughts.
Most people experience negative thought patterns from time to time, but sometimes these patterns become so entrenched that they interfere with relationships, achievements, and even well-being. Training your brain or cognitive restructuring is a group of therapeutic techniques that help people notice and change their negative thinking patterns.
When thought patterns become destructive and self-defeating, it’s a good idea to explore ways to interrupt and redirect them. That’s what cognitive restructuring can do. People sometimes experience cognitive distortions — thought patterns that create a distorted, unhealthy view of reality. Cognitive distortions often lead to depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and self-defeating behaviors. Some examples of cognitive distortions include: black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, overgeneralizing and personalizing.
Cognitive restructuring offers an opportunity to notice these maladaptive thoughts as they’re occurring. You can then practice reframing these thoughts in more accurate and helpful ways. The theory is that if you can change how you look at certain events or circumstances, you may be able to change the feelings you have and the actions you take. So how exactly do you restructure a negative thought?
Cognitive restructuring techniques
Self-monitoring: To change an unproductive thought pattern, you have to be able to identify the error you’re making. Cognitive restructuring depends on your ability to notice the thoughts that spark negative feelings and states of mind. It’s also useful to notice when and where the thoughts come up. It may be that you’re more vulnerable to cognitive distortions in certain situations. Knowing what those situations are may help you prepare in advance.
Knowing that vulnerability exists can help you catch your negative thought and change it before it gets the better of you. Some people find it helpful to journal as part of the process. Even if you aren’t sure at first what’s caused your anxiety or sadness, writing down your thoughts may help you recognize a cognitive distortion or pattern. As you practice self-monitoring, you’ll likely start noticing distorted thought patterns more quickly.
Questioning your assumptions: Another essential part of cognitive restructuring is learning how to question your thoughts and assumptions, especially those that seem to get in the way of living a productive life. Some questions you might ask include:
- Is this thought based on emotion or facts?
- What evidence is there that this thought is accurate?
- What evidence is there that this thought isn’t accurate?
- How could I test this belief?
- What’s the worst that could happen? How could I respond if the worst happens?
- What other ways could this information be interpreted?
- Is this really a black-and-white situation or are there shades of grey here?
If you’re experiencing the cognitive distortion called catastrophizing, for example, you might tend to assume the worst possible outcome in a stressful situation. In questioning this thought pattern, you could ask yourself to list all possible outcomes. You could ask yourself how likely each possible outcome is. Questioning allows you to consider new possibilities that aren’t as drastic as the catastrophic ones you may fear.
Gathering evidence: A key element of this business of retraining how you think is gathering evidence. You may decide to keep track of the events that trigger a response, including who you were with and what you were doing. You may want to record how strong each response is and what memories came up as a result. You might also gather evidence for or against your thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs. Cognitive distortions are biased and inaccurate, but they can also be deeply embedded. Dislodging and replacing them requires evidence about how rational they are.
Perform an analysis: Using this strategy, you would consider the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining a certain cognitive distortion. You could ask yourself:
- What do you get out of calling yourself a complete idiot, for example?
- What does this thought pattern cost you emotionally and practically speaking?
- What are the long-term effects?
- How does this thought pattern affect the people around you?
- How does it advance or limit your job performance?
Seeing the pros and cons side by side can help you decide whether it’s worth changing the pattern.
Generating alternatives: Retraining the brain helps people find new ways of looking at the things that happen to them. Part of the practice involves coming up with alternative explanations that are rational and positive to replace the distortions that have been adopted over time. For example, if you didn’t score as well on a test, instead of generalizing that you’re terrible at math, you might explore ways you could change your study habits. Or, you could explore some relaxation techniques you could try before your next test. Generating alternatives can also include creating positive affirmations to replace inaccurate or unhelpful
thought patterns. When I catch myself thinking negatively, Ï first say (out-loud), “Cancel that thought!” and then I like saying these: “I am strong.” “I can do this.” “In this moment, I am well.” Or repeating John 15 – 16: Ïf (I) have faith and do not doubt, it will be done.
A summary and some other strategies to consider:
1. Find and change your negative thinking
2. Practice deep breathing and coping self-talk
3. Identify an alternative situation and gradually approach it
4. Take control of your own perceptions – reframe the ones that are negative
5. Keep track of cognitive distortions: Identify the activating belief; What is the consequence? How do you feel?
6. Keep a daily thought record in just a few words (perhaps on your planner)
7. Modify your core beliefs
8. Create a worry time or use a worry chair (for worrying!)
9. Engage the right side of the brain (arts and crafts, clay-work, drawing, coloring printed pages)
10. Explore activity therapy – These are actions and movement to face problems. They can include writing your story, participating in local theater, become a distinguished photographer, learn a craft, find a new hobby, take a cooking class or discover your inner artist!
What are the benefits?
Cognitive restructuring is a method you can learn to do on your own. Being able to identify and change your negative thought patterns has many benefits. For instance, it may help to:
- lower your stress and alleviate anxiety
- strengthen your communication skills and build healthier relationships
- replace unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance use
- rebuild self-confidence and self-esteem
What types of issues can cognitive restructuring help with? The American Psychological
Association recommends this approach (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to help with:
- eating disorders
- substance use disorder
- mental illness
- marital problems
It can also help you navigate difficult transitions like divorce, a serious illness, or the loss of a loved one. In any life situation where negative thought patterns develop, cognitive restructuring can help you challenge and change unhelpful thoughts. If you need support, consider joining our Thursday night group on Zoom. Email me at Bsnyder008@gmail.com for how to get connected to a free and confidential group with caring and compassionate people.
Grateful appreciation for some of the ideas in this blog is extended to healthline.com.