Do you ever find yourself following a certain train of thought, without consciously deciding to go down that path, that takes you to a sad or upsetting conclusion?
I’m going to assume you answered affirmatively, since you’re human! (If you’re not a human, feel free to skip this piece.)
It’s in our nature to come up with schemas, or thought patterns and assumptions, about how things work. Without them, we would have to approach every problem as a brand new one, with no pre-existing experiences, problem-solving techniques, or lessons learned to draw from.
The issue with these schemas is that they are not always accurate. We do not always come up with the best and most effective methods for solving problems, but these methods can get saved to our subconscious anyway.
Fortunately, all hope is not lost if you have internalized a faulty perspective! There is an effective, evidence-backed process of reframing or restructuring these faulty ways of thinking that can help you right the biased, skewed, or just plain inaccurate beliefs you hold.
Read on to learn about cognitive restructuring and how it can help you improve your thinking.
This article contains:
- What Is Cognitive Restructuring or Cognitive Reframing? A Definition
- What Role Does CR Play in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
- Magnification, Overgeneralization, and Other Cognitive Distortions
- Cognitive Restructuring Techniques: Socratic Questioning, Guided Imagery, and More
- 9 Cognitive Restructuring Worksheets (PDF)
- A Take Home Message
What Is Cognitive Restructuring or Cognitive Reframing? A Definition
Cognitive restructuring, or cognitive reframing, is a therapeutic process that helps the client discover, challenge, and modify or replace their negative, irrational thoughts (or cognitive distortions).
It is a staple of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and a frequently used tool in a therapist’s toolbox, because many of our problems are caused by faulty ways of thinking about ourselves and the world around us. Cognitive restructuring aims to help people reduce their stress through cultivating more positive and functional thought habits (Mills, Reiss, & Dombeck, 2008).
Although it may seem overwhelmingly difficult to change your own ways of thinking, it is actually comparable to any other skill – it is hard when you first begin, but with practice, you will find it easier and easier to challenge your own negative thoughts and beliefs.
What Role Does CR Play in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is built on the idea that the way we think affects the way we feel. It is easy to see the logic behind this idea, and the implications of faulty ways of thinking.
Cognitive restructuring was first developed as a therapeutic tool of CBT and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, or REBT (Mills, Reiss, & Dombeck, 2008). CBT practitioners quickly found that it was an adaptable and flexible tool that could help a wide range of people dealing with all kinds of problems, whether the problems were due to outside factors, internal issues, or both.
This method of addressing problems and promoting healing makes up the bulk of CBT sessions, and offers dozens of techniques and exercises that can be applied to nearly any client scenario (Mind Tools Content Team, n.d.). Applied correctly, it will help the client learn to stop automatically trusting his or her thoughts as representative of reality and begin testing his or her thoughts for accuracy (Mills, Reiss, & Dombeck, 2008).
To learn more about how CBT uses cognitive restructuring techniques, watch this video of CBT founding father Aaron Beck discussing this method.
Magnification, Overgeneralization, and Other Cognitive Distortions
There are so many ways our thinking can play tricks on us that it’s almost surprising that we think in a more functional way most of the time! These tricks are known as “cognitive distortions” in psychology.
Cognitive distortions are faulty or biased ways of thinking about ourselves and/or our environment. They are beliefs and thought patterns that are irrational, false, or inaccurate, and they have the potential to cause serious damage to our sense of self, our confidence, and our ability to succeed.
One of the most common cognitive distortions is magnification or minimization, a damaging distortion that affects how we evaluate the things that happen to us.
Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization / The “Binocular Trick”
Also known as the “Binocular Trick” for its stealthy skewing of your perspective, this distortion involves exaggerating the importance or meaning of things or minimizing the importance or meaning of things. An athlete who is generally a good player but makes a mistake may magnify the importance of that mistake and believe that he is a terrible teammate, while an athlete who wins a coveted award in her sport may minimize the importance of the award and continue believing that she is only a mediocre player.
Another common distortion is known as overgeneralization:
This sneaky distortion takes one instance or example and generalizes it to an overall pattern, or accepts it as the norm. For example, a student may receive a C on one test and conclude that she is stupid and a failure. Overgeneralizing can lead to overly negative thoughts about oneself and one’s environment based on only one or two experiences.
Some of the other most common cognitive distortions include:
All-or-Nothing Thinking / Polarized Thinking
Also known as “Black-and-White Thinking,” this distortion manifests as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of gray. In other words, you see things in terms of extremes – something is either fantastic or awful, you are either perfect or a total failure.
Similar to overgeneralization, the mental filter distortion focuses on a single negative and excludes all the positive. An example of this distortion is one partner in a romantic relationship dwelling on a single negative comment made by the other partner and viewing the relationship as hopelessly lost, while ignoring the years of positive comments and experiences.
The mental filter can foster a negative view of everything around you by focusing only on the negative.
Disqualifying the Positive
On the flipside, the “Disqualifying the Positive” distortion acknowledges positive experiences, but rejects them instead of embracing them. For example, a person who receives a positive review at work might reject the idea that he is a competent employee and attribute the positive review to political correctness or to his boss simply not wanting to talk about his employee’s performance problems. This is an especially malignant distortion, since it can facilitate the continuance of negative thought patterns even in the face of lots of evidence to the contrary.
Jumping to Conclusions: Mind Reading
This “Jumping to Conclusions” distortion manifests as the inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking. Of course, it is possible to have an idea of what other people are thinking, but this distortion refers to the negative interpretations that we jump to. Seeing a stranger with an unpleasant expression and jumping to the conclusion that she is thinking something negative about you is an instance of this distortion.
Jumping to Conclusions: Fortune Telling
A sister distortion to mind reading, fortune telling refers to the tendency to make conclusions and predictions based on little to no evidence, and holding them as gospel truth. One example of fortune telling is a young, single woman predicting that she will never find love or have a committed and happy relationship based only on the fact that she has not found it yet. There is simply no way for her to know how her life will turn out, but she sees this prediction as fact rather than one of several possible outcomes.
This may be one of the most surprising distortions to many readers, and it is also one of the most important to identify and address. The logic behind this distortion is not surprising to most people; rather, it is the realization that virtually all of us have bought into this distortion at one time or another. Emotional reasoning refers to the acceptance of one’s emotions as fact. It can be described as “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Of course, we know this isn’t a reasonable belief, but it is a common one nonetheless.
Another particularly damaging distortion is the tendency to make “should” statements. Should statements are statements that you make to yourself about what you “should” do, what you “ought” to do, or what you “must” do. They can also be applied to others, imposing a set of expectations that will likely not be met. When we hang on too tightly to our “should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When he cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by the failure of the others to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.
Labeling and Mislabeling
These tendencies are basically extreme forms of overgeneralization, in which we assign judgments of value to ourselves or to others based on one instance or experience. For example, a student who labels herself as “an utter fool” for failing an assignment is engaging in this distortion, as is the waiter who labels a customer “a grumpy old miser” if he fails to thank the waiter for bringing his food. Mislabeling refers to the application of highly emotional, loaded language when labeling.
As the name implies, this distortion involves taking everything personally or assigning blame to yourself with no logical reason to believe you are to blame. This distortion covers a wide range of situations, from assuming you are the reason a friend did not enjoy the girl’s night out because of you, to the more severe examples of believing that you are the cause for every instance of moodiness or irritation in those around you.
In addition to these basic cognitive distortions, Beck and Burns have mentioned a few others (Beck, 1976; Burns, 1980):
A control fallacy manifests as one of two beliefs: (1) that we have no control over our lives and are helpless victims of fate, or (2) that we are in complete control of ourselves and our surroundings, giving us responsibility for the feelings of those around us. Both beliefs are damaging, and both are equally inaccurate. No one is in complete control of what happens to them, and no one has absolutely no control over their situation. Even in extreme situations where an individual seemingly has no choices in what they do, where they go, or what they say, they still have a certain amount of control over how they approach their situation mentally.
Fallacy of Fairness
While we would all probably prefer to operate in a world that is fair, this assumption is not based in reality and can foster negative feelings when we are faced with proof of life’s unfairness. A person who judges every experience by its perceived fairness has fallen for this fallacy, and will likely feel anger, resentment, and hopelessness when he inevitably encounters a situation that is not fair.
Fallacy of Change
Another fallacy distortion involves expecting others to change if we pressure or encourage them enough. This distortion is usually accompanied by a belief that our happiness and success rests on other people, leading us to believe that forcing those around us to change is the only way to get what we want. A man who thinks “If I just encourage my wife to stop doing the things that irritate me, I can be a better husband and a happier person” is exhibiting the fallacy of change.
Always Being Right
Perfectionists and those struggling with Imposter Syndrome will recognize this distortion – it is the belief that we must always be right, correct, or accurate. With this distortion, the idea that we could be wrong is absolutely unacceptable, and we will fight to the metaphorical death to prove that we are right. For example, the internet commenters who spends hours arguing with each other over an opinion or political issue far beyond the point where reasonable individuals would conclude that they should “agree to disagree” are engaging in the “Always Being Right” distortion. To them, it is not simply a matter of a difference of opinion, it is an intellectual battle that must be won at all costs.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
This distortion is a popular one, particularly with the myriad examples of this fallacy playing out on big and small screens across the world. The “Heaven’s Reward Fallacy” manifests as a belief that one’s struggles, one’s suffering, and one’s hard work will result in a just reward. It is obvious why this type of thinking is a distortion – how many examples can you think of, just within the realm of your personal acquaintances, where hard work and sacrifice did not pay off? Sometimes no matter how hard we work or how much we sacrifice, we will not achieve what we hope to achieve. To think otherwise is a potentially damaging pattern of thought that can result in disappointment, frustration, anger, and even depression when the awaited reward does not materialize.
To learn more about these faulty ways of thinking, check out our piece dedicated to cognitive distortions. This handout is also a useful guide to understanding and challenging the most common distortions.
Cognitive Restructuring Techniques: Socratic Questioning, Guided Imagery, and More
Luckily, although cognitive distortions are stubborn and surprisingly insidious thought patterns, there are ways to combat them! Cognitive restructuring techniques have had great success in identifying, challenging, and replacing faulty ways of thinking with more accurate, helpful, and positive ways of thinking.
For an overview of how cognitive restructuring works, check out this guide from therapistaid.com. It will walk you through what cognitive distortions are, how they can affect us, how to identify your own cognitive distortions, and some of the most common techniques to address them.
Increasing Awareness of Thoughts
The first step toward fixing faulty thinking is to identify your faulty thinking. Increasing your awareness of your own thoughts, particularly your overly negative or biased thoughts, is a vital piece of this process.
It will take time and effort to improve your awareness of your own thoughts. It’s not a natural practice for people to stop in the middle of experiencing an intense emotion and think about how they got to where they are! Although it is difficult, you will find that the outcome is worth the effort.
Begin looking for cognitive distortions by turning on your internal “radar” for negative emotions. Think about when your depression, anxiety, or anger symptoms are at their worst. If it’s too difficult to start with your emotions, start with behaviors instead. Ask yourself what behaviors you would like to change, then identify what triggers those behaviors.
You can think of these situations as “alarm” situations, or situations that alert you to the presence of one or more cognitive distortions.
Some example alarm situations include:
- You notice a feeling of anxiety before going out with friends. Your heart races, and you sweat.
- You start arguments with your partner after you’ve had a meeting with your boss. The arguments always start over something minor, like chores.
- When a big assignment is due at school, you put it off until the last minute. Small assignments are no problem.
- You feel depressed when you have to spend an evening alone. You feel so lonely that you can’t take it.
Consider these alarm situations and think about similar situations in your own life. Are there scenarios that frequently bring out uncomfortable or painful emotions? Do certain situations tend to have a larger than expected impact on your mood?
Do your best to identify as many triggering situations as you can, and the more specific they are, the better! It’s incredibly helpful to have a list of your most common or most significant triggers when beginning your cognitive restructuring work.
Socratic Questioning is a very effective cognitive restructuring technique that can help you or your clients to challenge irrational, illogical, or harmful thinking errors.
The basic outline for this technique is to ask the following questions:
- Is this thought realistic?
- Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?
- What is the evidence for this thought?
- Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
- Am I viewing the situation as black and white, when it’s really more complicated?
- Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?
For a more in-depth guide to Socratic Questioning, check out this worksheet. It explains how thoughts are a running dialogue in our minds, and they can come and go so quickly that we can barely understand them, let alone have time to address them. This worksheet can help you or your clients to capture some of these potentially problematic thoughts and analyze them.
The first step is to identify the thoughts that you feel need to be questioned. Think of a specific thought that you suspect is destructive or irrational, especially one that pops into your head quite a lot.
Next, consider the evidence for and against this thought. What evidence is there that this thought is accurate? What evidence exists that calls it into question?
Once you have identified the evidence, you can make a judgment on this thought. Weigh the evidence for the thought and the evidence against the thought, and decide whether it is more likely to be accurate or false. Determine whether it is based on the facts or on your feelings.
Next, you answer a question on whether this thought is truly a black and white situation, or whether reality leaves room for shades of grey. This is where you think about whether you are using all-or-nothing thinking, or making things unreasonably simple when they are truly complex.
In the last box on this page, you consider whether you could be misinterpreting the evidence or making any unverified assumptions.
On the second page of the worksheet, you are instructed to think about whether other people might have different interpretations of the same situation, and what those interpretations might be. Consider whether your interpretation is simply one of many valid interpretations, or whether yours is actually not a very likely interpretation compared to others.
Next, ask yourself whether you are looking at all the relevant evidence, or just the evidence that backs up the belief you already hold. Try to be as objective as possible.
The next section asks you whether your thought may an exaggeration of a truth. Some negative thoughts are based in truth, but extended past their logical boundaries.
Next, you are instructed to consider whether you are entertaining this negative thought out of habit or because the facts truly support it.
Once you have decided whether the facts support this thought, you are encouraged to think about how this thought came to you. Was it passed on from someone else? If so, do you think they are a reliable source of truth in this matter?
Finally, you are instructed to complete the worksheet by identifying how likely the scenario your thought brings up actually is, and whether it is actually the worst-case scenario. While the outcomes we come to expect may actually be possible, that does not mean they are likely.
These “Socratic questions” encourage a deep dive into the thoughts that may plague you, and offer an opportunity to analyze and evaluate them for truth. If you are having thoughts that do not come from a place of truth, this worksheet can be an excellent tool for identifying and defusing them.
You probably already know that visualization can be a great tool for relaxing, managing pain, getting anxiety under control, and neutralizing anger. You may not have known that it can also be an extremely effective method of cognitive restructuring.
There are three main categories of guided imagery that a therapist can guide their client through cognitive restructuring:
- Life Event Visualization
- Reinstatement of a Dream or Daytime Image
- Feeling Focusing
Life Event Visualization
This technique involves having the client identify a specific event or theme that is the focus of the therapy sessions (Edwards, 1989). This event could be something recent and particularly salient, like an argument with a loved one, or something from the past that still has a strong impact on the client, like being bullied or a harsh rejection from childhood. If the focus is on a theme, the client will keep this theme in mind and let an image arise organically.
Reinstatement of a Dream or Daytime Image
This imagery technique focuses on a specific image that the client has already had. The image could be one that the client encountered in a dream, daydream, fantasy, or previous guided imagery session. Wherever it came from, it will hold some inherent meaning to the client, and may cause the client to feel anxious, sad, upset, or another emotion intensely.
The final imagery type is characterized by the client focusing on a feeling he or she is experiencing in the session, and letting an image arise from the feeling. An image will usually arise spontaneously, but if not, a technique called multisensory evocation can help to clarify an image. For this technique, the therapist will direct the client through an exploration of the senses to help sharpen the image and identify more detail.
Once the client has an image in mind, the therapist will move on to assessing the meanings that the image hold for the client. There are several assessment techniques a therapist may use, including:
- Prompted soliloquy – the therapist directs the client to identify as an object or entity from the image (e.g., a client who visualized a lake drying up was directed to “be the lake”), and speak from the position of this object or entity (e.g., the client would speak about how it felt to be the lake, and what its drying up meant).
- Interview – in this technique, the client will once again take on the role of an object or entity from the image, and the therapist will ask specific questions of the client in this role.
- Prompted dialogue – similar to the previous techniques, this technique involves the client taking on a role and addressing one of the other objects or people in the imagery (e.g., the client could identify as the lake and address the trees around the lake).
- Prompted descriptions – this basic technique simply refers to the therapist’s use of frequent questions about what the client is seeing and feeling.
- Prompted transformation – the therapist may suggest that the client shifts or changes the image; this can be especially helpful when the current image has reached the end of its usefulness as a discussion piece.
However a therapist and client work together to identify the meanings attached to the image, the next step will help them to begin challenging, restructuring, or replacing harmful assumptions and beliefs.
Some of the techniques a therapist may use to guide a client through restructuring include summary and reframing, directed dialogue, prompted dialogue, directed transformation, and prompted transformation.
Summary and Reframing
This restructuring method refers to the therapist’s summarizing what he or she has learned from the client and suggesting alternate beliefs or assumptions based on the client’s image. This is generally a first step in restructuring, as it is a gentle introduction to the idea of changing what may be deeply or even unconsciously held beliefs.
In directed dialogue, the therapist instructs the client to take on the role of one of the objects or people from the imagery and deliver specified lines in that role. The client may direct their speech to another object or person in the imagery or simply make statements to no one in particular. This technique can help the client consider the possibility of new beliefs and begin to modulate their own assumptions.
This technique is not as direct as the previous technique, but it can be just as powerful. Instead of telling the client exactly what to say in their role from the image, the therapist will direct them to come up with their own words to capture a specific idea.
This technique also has the potential to be very powerful. In directed transformation, the therapist will direct the client to make a change to the image. The change may be to direct one of the individuals in the image to take a new action or to edit, enhance, or erase an object from the image.
Like prompted dialogue, this technique gives the client a bit more freedom to make their own changes to the image. Instead of directing the client in exactly how to change the image, the therapist will encourage the client to think of a way to change the image that will further a goal or help it become more positive (Edwards, 1989).
Keeping thought records is an excellent way to help you or your client become aware of the any cognitive distortions that went previously unnoticed or unquestioned, which is the necessary first step to restructuring them Boyes, 2013). There are several different ways to structure a thought record, but the main idea is to note what recurrent thoughts are coming to mind and the situations in which they come up.
A popular thought record (described in more detail later) instructs you to record the situation, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and alternate thought.
As an example, you may fill this out with the following descriptions if you are having trouble being alone with depressive symptoms:
- Situation: Everyone’s busy, so I’m spending an evening alone with no plans.
- Thoughts: No one wants to hang out with me. I’m just wasting my life, sitting here alone.
- Emotions: Depressed.
- Behaviors: Stayed home all night and did nothing. Just sat around having bad thoughts.
- Alternate Thought: I’m alone tonight, but everyone is alone from time to time. I can do whatever I want!
Alternatively, if you are struggling with procrastination, you might fill out the thought record as follows:
- Situation: A difficult assignment is due at school.
- Thoughts: This is so much work. I’m horrible at this stuff. I don’t think I can do it.
- Emotions: Anxious.
- Behaviors: Avoided the assignment until the last minute. Had to rush my work.
- Alternate Thought: This is a difficult assignment, and it’ll take a lot of work. But I know I can do it if I break it into small pieces.
Writing this information down will give you or your client a way to consider what they may not have noticed before, and find patterns in their thinking that can point to specific distortions in their cognition.
In the next section, we’ll go over one such worksheet that can be used to record potentially distorted thoughts.
Decatastrophizing or “What If?” Technique
This technique is basically asking “what’s the worst that can happen?” and following a scenario logically through to completion. We often suffer from assumptions or anxieties about the worst possible outcome that could happen, even if that outcome is (a) not very likely, and (b) not going to ruin our lives even if it does!
Decatastrophizing or asking yourself “what if?” will help you or your client determine what is likely to happen, reduce irrational or unreasonable anxiety, and see that even the worst-case scenario is manageable.
A worksheet covering this technique will also be included below.
9 Cognitive Restructuring Worksheets (PDF)
If you’re hoping for some hands-on tools to help you with cognitive restructuring, you’ve come to the right place! A few of the best worksheets and handouts for cognitive restructuring exercises are described below.
This simply worksheet is very easy to use, but it can be extremely helpful for enhancing your awareness and identifying potentially damaging thoughts.
There are five columns in this thought record, with space for up to five separate instances.
In the first column, the user is instructed to describe the situation. This should include the five “W”s and one “H” (i.e., who, what, where, when, why, how), if applicable. Write down everything you can think of that contributed to the environment and to encouraging or promoting the thought that follows.
Write down this thought in the second column. It should be a thought that you identified as potentially harmful, illogical, or outright false. Be specific and write out the whole thought.
In the next column, think about the emotions that accompanied this thought. How did you feel when this thought popped up? What emotions did it seem to bring with it? What emotions did it cause? Anger, shame, sadness, guilt? Write down whatever emotions it engendered.
In the fourth column, note the behaviors that accompanied the thought. What were you doing when the thought came up? What did you want to do, try to do, or actually do when the thought arose? Did it encourage you to do anything in particular?
Finally, use the fifth column to record an alternate thought, especially if the original thought is one that you find unenjoyable or unhelpful. The alternate thought should be something that you find plausible, but that is more positive and realistic than the original thought.
Use this thought record as much as needed, whether that is once every couple of days when a problematic thought pops up, or several times a day when a recurring thought returns to plague you. Keeping a log will help you identify patterns and discover the triggers and potential fixes for the negative, automatic thoughts you are suffering from.
Click here to download this worksheet for your own use or for your clients.
ABC Belief Monitoring
Similar to the Thought Record worksheet, this worksheet is a great way to help you or your client identify the link between situations, thoughts and beliefs, and the feelings and actions that follow. Sometimes it is difficult for us to connect the triggers of our thoughts and beliefs with the outcomes of those thoughts and beliefs. Use this worksheet to help you or your clients discover these connections.
In the first portion of the worksheet, you will identify the antecedents or triggers (the “A” in ABC) of the belief or thought. Describe the situation as best you can.
In the second section, identify the belief or thought (the “B” in ABC) that you had about the situation. Make sure to note all thoughts or beliefs that arose if you had more than one. Be specific about them. After you have identified the thoughts and beliefs, rate how true you find them to be on a scale from 0% (not true at all) to 100% (absolutely true). Consider each thought or belief, and take some time to assign them an accurate rating.
In the third and final section, list the consequences (the “C” in ABC) of the thought or belief. Describe how you felt when this situation occurred, what you did in response, and how others reacted (if applicable). Do your best not to shy away from the truth, even if it’s difficult to admit how you responded to the situation or acknowledge how others reacted.
Use this belief monitoring worksheet to keep tabs on any automatic beliefs or thoughts that tend to pop up for you, especially in times of stress or situations that don’t go your way. The first step to restructuring harmful or problematic beliefs is identifying them!
You can find this worksheet here.
Putting Thoughts on Trial
This exercise uses CBT theory and techniques to help you examine your irrational thoughts. You will act as the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge all at once, providing evidence for and against the irrational thought and evaluating the merit of the thought based on this evidence.
The worksheet begins with an explanation of the exercise and a description of the roles you will be playing.
The first box to be completed is “The Thought.” This is where you write down the irrational thought that is being put on trial.
Next, you fill out “The Defense” box with evidence that corroborates or supports the thought.
Once you have listed all of defense’s evidence, do the same for “The Prosecution” box. Write down all of the evidence calling the thought into question or instilling doubt in its accuracy.
When you have listed all of the evidence you can think of, both for and against the thought, evaluate the evidence and write down the results of your evaluation in “The Judge’s Verdict” box.
This worksheet is a fun and engaging way to think critically about your negative or irrational thoughts and make good decisions about which thoughts to modify and which to embrace.
Click here to use this worksheet for yourself or your clients.
This worksheet is an excellent way to practice several helpful restructuring techniques and methods of reframing. It also allows you to use your imagination and think about how your current habits and behaviors could bring about future outcomes, whether positive or negative.
In the first section, labeled “Prediction,” write down a prediction you believe will come true. It should be related to something meaningful to you, and it should be tied to a potential cognitive distortion. Describe what you expect to happen, and how you would know if your prediction came true. Next, rate how strongly you believe this prediction will actually come true on a scale from 0% (not strong at all) to 100% (extremely strong).
In the next section, you will do a little experimenting. Think of an experiment that could test this prediction you have, and note the situation that would need to unfold (when, where, who, etc.). Identify which of your safety behaviors, or behaviors you use to protect yourself from anxiety, sadness, or disappointment, would need to be dropped to conduct the experiment. Note how you would know if your prediction came true or not.
The next step is the biggest one – go out and conduct the experiment.
Once you have completed the experiment, come back to the worksheet and answer the rest of the questions.
The section following the experiment covers the outcome of the experiment. Describe what happened, and don’t skimp on details! Once you have penned a good description of the outcome, determine whether your prediction was accurate.
The final section, titled “Learning,” helps you consolidate the lessons from this experiment. Write down what you learned from your experiment, and determine how likely it is that your predictions will come true in the future. Finally, rate how strongly you agree with your original prediction now that you have completed your experiment and examined the results.
The beauty of this worksheet is that it can be used for a wide variety of predictions and behaviors, from big to small, positive to negative, meaningful to trivial, and everything in between.
Completing these behavioral experiments will help you to challenge your assumptions about how things work, as well as your beliefs about how things should work. Use it as often as you like to keep track of any potentially damaging distortions and maintain awareness about your deeply held beliefs.
You can find this worksheet here.
Positive Belief Record
This worksheet offers a surprisingly simple and straightforward, yet evidence-based method of challenging potentially harmful or inaccurate beliefs you may hold.
To dive into this worksheet, direct your attention to the top of the sheet. You will find two boxes – one where you can record the belief you would like to modify or replace, and a second where you can come up with a new, more positive belief to replace it.
Underneath the two beliefs is a section where you can record some evidence for the new belief or against the current belief. This evidence can provide support for the new belief, call the current belief into question, or do both at once. It should be fairly easy to find this kind of evidence, especially if the current belief is one that you have identified as a belief that is likely to be inaccurate or illogical.
There is enough space on the worksheet to come up with ten pieces of evidence that support the new belief or cast doubt upon the current belief, but feel free to use another sheet of paper if you need more room! This evidence can include experiences you have had, something someone else has said to you, or anything else you can think of that supports the new belief or sheds doubt on the old belief.
Use this worksheet whenever you identify a thought or belief that you realize is distorted, inaccurate, or biased. It will help you come up with ways to combat it and replace it with a new, more positive, more realistic thought or belief.
You can view or download this worksheet here.
Theory A Theory B
However important, real, or pressing our problems seem to us, they are often a different kind of problem than we think. This worksheet can help you or your client to start seeing many of your problems as problems of belief or worry instead of situation or fact.
The worksheet is split into two columns, labeled “Theory A” and “Theory B.”
Under Theory A, you will describe your problem as one of fact. Under Theory B, you will describe your problem as one of worry.
First, identify your problem and describe it under Theory A. Finish the sentence prompt “The problem is…” with a description of the problem as you currently understand it.
Next, provide evidence that this problem is real, and that you are interpreting the situation correctly.
Finish up the Theory A column by answering the question: “What do I need to do if Theory A is true?” In other words, determine what you would need to do to solve your problem or, if it is unsolvable, address the issues that come with this problem.
When you have finished with the first column, move on to the second column and Theory B.
Describe the problem again, but this time from the perspective of the problem as one of worrying rather than fact. Consider the idea that the real problem is in fact the belief you have or the worry you carry.
Next, provide evidence for the problem as one of belief or worry instead of fact. Think of any evidence you can find that lends support to this interpretation.
Finally, answer the same question you did at the bottom of the first column: “What do I need to do if Theory B is true?” Consider what you would need to do to address your problem if it is interpreted as a problem of worry rather than fact.
Compare the two columns once you have finished. You will likely find that the second column describes a problem that is much more realistic and manageable, and that your “to-do list” at the bottom is much simpler and more straightforward in the second column.
Use this worksheet whenever you want to reframe a problem to make it tamer and more manageable. Click here to view, print, or download this worksheet.
This last worksheet will help you change your perspective on some of the most common situations you encounter or think about. It is based on the natural human tendency to finish the thought “What if…?” with negative situations or events.
While we often veer toward the negative possibilities, there are usually an equal number of positive possibilities that we simply fail to recognize. The consequence of considering only negative outcomes is clearly not a happier and healthier you – a more balanced perspective will help you to approach life with a more positive and realistic attitude.
The worksheet juxtaposes two columns with two separate ways of looking at the world: one negative, and one positive.
On the left side, the column is labeled “Negative ‘What if…?’”
On the right side, the column is labeled “Positive ‘What if…?’”
As you have probably guessed, your instructions are to fill out the left column with “glass half empty” ways of completing a “What if…?” thought, and to fill out the right column with “glass half full” ways of completing such a thought.
There is plenty of room to write in each column, so do your best to fill them! At the least, you should try to make sure you come up with as many positive sentence completions as negative ones. Negative ones tend to come easier to us, but it’s important to consider the positive possibilities as well.
Once you have filled in each column, move on to the final section of the worksheet. Here you will be posed two questions:
- How does each kind of “What if…?” make you feel?
- Which is more likely than the other?
Consider your answers to these questions for each pair of “What if…?” scenarios. You will likely find that you feel much better thinking about the positive one than the negative one. If you are being honest with yourself, you will probably find that the positive outcome is more likely to occur than the negative one.
Pull out this worksheet whenever you or your client is having trouble considering the positive along with the negative. This exercise can help you to restructure your thinking to correct distortions like disqualifying the positive, mental filter, catastrophizing, minimizing, and overgeneralization.
Click here to view this worksheet.
These last two are not actually worksheets, but they are extremely helpful handouts on restructuring and reframing negative thoughts and dysfunctional assumptions – they are certainly worth including!
Challenging Negative Automatic Thoughts
In this handout, the reader will be guided through types and characteristics of negative automatic thoughts (or cognitive distortions), identification of these thoughts, and strategies for modifying or restructuring these thoughts.
These strategies include:
- Examining the evidence for and against
- Exploring the idiosyncratic meanings of these thoughts
- Exposing the bias and distortion in these thoughts
- Expanding one’s perspective
- Experimenting, both behaviorally and cognitively
According to the handout, there are six “Golden Questions” to ask in order to help you challenge and modify or replace these thoughts:
- What evidence is there to show that my understanding of this situation is accurate?
- Is there another way of looking at this? (There may be evidence to support an alternative explanation.)
- What would be so bad if my initial understanding proved to be accurate?
- What could I do to cope if this really is the case?
- What are the consequences of my believing my understanding to be accurate?
- How can I change my understanding, after weighing up all the evidence, to make it less distressing?
Use these questions to guide your thinking about the evidence for these negative automatic thoughts, the implications if they are correct (and if they are incorrect), and how they should be modified, restructured, or replaced.
You can find this handout here.
Challenging/Restructuring Dysfunctional Assumptions
This handout offers another excellent guide to identifying and addressing dysfunctional, inaccurate, and potentially harmful beliefs.
It describes what dysfunctional assumptions are, notes some common characteristics and themes, provides examples, and outlines some ways to combat them.
One such way to combat a dysfunctional assumption is the Downward Arrow Technique. This is a process of successive questioning that can help the client to see the dysfunctional assumption they hold more clearly.
Typically, this technique takes the following format:
- What is so bad about x? [Answer – y]
- What is so bad about y? [Answer – z]
- What is so bad about z?
Eventually, the client will likely come to a point where they either cannot give an answer or the only answer they have is “It just is!” or something similar. This will help them to see that they are making an assumption, somewhere along the line, that doesn’t hold up to reasoning.
Once the dysfunctional assumption is identified, there are five steps to be taken in order to challenge and modify, restructure, or replace it:
- Understand the origins of the dysfunctional assumption.
- Assessing its irrationality (extent to which is unreasonable, excessive, exaggerated, etc.).
- Check its dysfunctionality (compare the advantages and disadvantages of believing it).
- Develop a reformulation (guideline for living which is more flexible, i.e., retains advantages while losing disadvantages).
- Implement an action plan.
To learn more about challenging dysfunctional assumptions, you can find the handout here.
A Take Home Message
In this piece, we covered the topic of cognitive restructuring. We defined cognitive restructuring (or cognitive reframing), identified some of the most common distortions that can be addressed through cognitive restructuring, covered several different techniques for modifying or replacing these distortions, and provided worksheets and handouts that can help you or your client on this journey to more positive and effective cognition.
I hope you come away from this piece with a new understanding of this valuable CBT tool, and an interest in learning more about the fascinating way that our minds work.
Have you tried any of these techniques, either as a therapist or as a client? How did they work for you? Are there any techniques you found effective that were not included here? Leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts on the subject!
Thanks for reading!
- Beck, A. T. (2014). Cognitive restructuring in CBT. Beck Institute. [Video]. Retrieved from https://beckinstitute.org/cognitive-restructuring-in-cbt/
- Boyes, A. (2013). Cognitive restructuring: Six ways to do cognitive restructuring. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-practice/201301/cognitive-restructuring
- Edwards, D. (1989). Cognitive restructuring through guided imagery: Lessons from Gestalt Therapy. In A. Freeman, K. M. Simon, L. E. Beutler, & H. Akrowitz (Eds) Comprehensive Handbook of Cognitive Therapy. Boston, MA, US: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4757-9779-4_15
- Mills, H., Reiss, N., & Dombeck, M. (2008). Cognitive restructuring. Mental Help Net. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/cognitive-restructuring-info/
- Mind Tools Content Team. (n.d.). Cognitive restructuring: Reducing stress by changing your thinking. Mind Tools. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_81.htm