Try These Cognitive Restructuring Exercises to Improve Your Mood and Reduce Stress
Life is full of problems and challenges. We have all at some point found ourselves in one difficult situation or another.
This could be loss of a loved one, loss of a job, suffering from a terminal illness, fighting with a loved one, being in a job you hate, suffering a broken heart, and so on.
These situations can be very stressing and draining, and sometimes, you might find your life spiraling out of control.
You get sucked into a downward spiral where your situation leads to negative thoughts, which in worsen your situation, resulting in a never ending cycle of negativity, anxiety, depression and desperation.
You might have tried various ways of pulling yourself out of this cycle, but nothing seems to work. You have tried sharing your feelings with friends, you have even tried following the teachings of various motivational speakers, but nothing just seems to work.
If you happen to find yourself in such a situation, you might want to give Cognitive Restructuring (CR) a try.
Cognitive restructuring will help you deal with these situations by overcoming negative thinking and becoming more aware of what is happening in your mind, which in turn changes your way of thinking for better.
In this article, I’ll take you through the most effective CR exercises that you can do on your own that have been shown to have positive effects on your mood and overall wellbeing.
But first, let’s understand what cognitive restructuring is.
WHAT IS COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING?
Cognitive restructuring, also referred to as cognitive reframing is a therapeutic, collaborative and structured technique where distressed people learn how to identify, challenge, evaluate, and modify stress-inducing thought patterns, and automatic beliefs that are considered responsible for damaging behaviors and psychological disturbance.
The main objective of cognitive restructuring is to enable stressed individuals to replace negative thought or habits with more positive (and therefore less stress-inducing) ones.
It helps one change the distorted thinking that often lies behind the unpleasant moods that we experience from time to time. As such, it helps you approach situations in a more positive way.
This approach, which was first developed as a part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for depression, happens to be a very powerful therapy technique as it has helped many people cope with several types of stressful situations, and has been identified by therapists as an effective treatment approach for psychological disorders like depression, relationship issues, addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias and anxiety.
BENEFITS OF COGNITIVE THERAPY
Cognitive therapy trains your brain to learn new ways of seeing and approaching life issues.
You learn how to think clearly and determine if your thoughts and beliefs are rational and beneficial among other benefits, which include:
- Controlled thinking: CR helps one learn ways of stopping unwanted thoughts that lead to bad moods, stress and depression, while promoting rational and positive thinking.
- Helps build confidence: Being in control of your feelings, thoughts and belief systems helps build your confidence. You no longer feel inadequate or find yourself needlessly doubting yourself.
- You become more rational: This therapy helps you think and believe things in a well-reasoned and logical way. It helps prevent automatic negative thoughts from taking control of your brain.
- Better life outcomes: As a result of our past bad experiences, we may be inclined to expect bad things to happen in our lives but as our thoughts and beliefs change, we begin to expect more positive things. We begin to see situations more logically. This in turn causes things to happen in line with our expectations.
With cognitive restructuring, we start to question our past beliefs and experiences to find out whether they were rational or not.
Are they actually based on facts?
Did we just believe things for decades without questioning? And what’s the actual truth?
Could it be possible that we brainwashed ourselves for years?
Do we take time to listen to others’ or do we spend time much time listening to our own internal negative thoughts?
The same way thoughts change our beliefs, is the same way physical changes occur in our brain when we alter our thoughts. We begin expecting different outcomes, because our way of thinking has changed.
We now see things differently than we did in the past. This new positive perspective on life in turn results in more positive experiences and outcomes in life.
Because of this, we can think of the brain as a neutral object that responds in the way we train it to respond. Cognitive therapy helps you to train your brain to respond positively to all situations.
- Helps you relax: The most important thing we learn in social anxiety therapy is to train our brain to respond to stressful situations in a different way than we used to before. Hence stress and anxiety does not frighten and freak us out anymore. We instead learn how to employ a relaxed approach and handle the situation with peace and calmness.
HOW DOES COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING WORK?
Cognitive restructuring helps to transform the way we think and behave, which normally affects how we handle situations. Negative thinking hinders positive outcomes.
For example, when an individual is depressed, their way of perceiving and interpreting things become distorted.
This distorted view brings about negative mindsets, jumping into conclusions, mistakenly seeing situations as catastrophic, and seeing things as either good or bad with nothing in between.
If people get used to fearful or negative thinking, their perception of life changes automatically. Cognitive restructuring helps to challenge these automatic thoughts and instead compare them with reality.
If a negative person can change their way of reasoning, their stress levels will go down and they will begin to function in a way that is more likely to benefit them and those around them as well.
With cognitive restructuring, the individual learns how to ditch the default negative mode and solve issues in a more constructive way, without seeing every situation as catastrophic.
This in turn reduces stress, negative moods and helps them to feel more in control of the situation.
To make it easier to understand how these automatic negative thoughts affect us and how cognitive restricting can change that, I’ll use an illustration. For a moment, let’s think about a person with exam phobia.
For such a person, the simple thought of sitting for a test is enough to fill them with anxiety and nervousness.
In most cases, this is usually a result of a past negative experience with tests. In this case, the student gets nervous because of the faulty thinking which says “Because I failed in a test before, I will fail in all other tests.”
Cognitive restructuring in this case would try to have the student looking at the actual facts rather than what their mind is telling them.
Just because they failed once before, it doesn’t mean they will always fail.
Instead of thinking about the one time they failed, cognitive restructuring urges them to think about the other times they did well in tests.
COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING EXERCISES
Here are several exercises to help tear down faulty cognitive distortions. Used again and again, these distortions will be replaced with positive, balanced thoughts.
Mindful meditation is very essential in training yourself to be aware or mindful of situations that make you get lost in negative thoughts.
Mindful awareness of your beliefs, anxieties and thoughts is an important first step in cognitive restructuring.
This exercise involves focusing on a particular thing, say breathing for a set number of minutes.
Instead of thinking about what you are going through, you instead put all your focus into experiencing the sensations of your breathing, which helps to clear the negative thoughts from your mind.
After clearing the negative thoughts from your mind, you can then replace them with positive affirmations and positive thoughts.
Learning and adopting mindfulness meditation is one of the best was of completely detaching yourself from your own thoughts.
Increasing Awareness of Thoughts
The first thing to consider when trying to fix faulty thinking is to identify the thoughts in your mind that could be faulty.
Getting to understand your own mind, mainly your biased or overly negative thoughts, is an important step of this process.
It will take effort and time to understand and improve your awareness of your own mind.
It’s not common for human beings to stop in the middle of a thought or intense emotion and start thinking about how the thought came about.
As difficult as it may sound, however, the results will be worth the effort once you learn how to become aware of your thoughts.
Start taking note of the negative emotions in your brain, or think of the times when your anxiety, depression and negative moods are most prevalent.
You could start with your behaviors if you find it too difficult to start with your emotions.
Look out for the behaviors you don’t like and would want to change, and then try to identify what triggers them.
These situations can be referred to as “alarm” or “trigger” situations. These are the situations that precede the instances of cognitive distortions.
Some alarm situations include:
- Feeling stressed any time you have to spend a night alone. You start feeling lonely, which in turn triggers negative thoughts and emotions.
- Feelings of anxiety when your friends ask you out. You begin to sweat and your heart races.
- Arguing with your partner after you just met with your boss. The arguments usually start over very minor things, like chores.
- When a big assignment is due at school or work, you put it off until the last minute.
These are just some few examples of alarm situations. Take time and think about similar situations in your own life.
Have you experienced scenarios that normally bring out painful or uncomfortable emotions?
Are there situations that tend to have a larger impact on your mood than expected?
Identify as many ‘triggers’ as possible, and make them as specific as possible.
Having a list of your most common triggers is very helpful when starting your cognitive restructuring journey, since it will help you to become aware of moments when you are undergoing instances of cognitive distortion.
Socratic Questioning is a very effective exercise that can help you challenge illogical, irrational, or harmful thinking.
It explains that thoughts are running conversations in our minds that come and go very quickly to even understand them. Socratic question allows us to question our thoughts and try to find out if they are helpful or not.
When you find yourself having a negative thought, below are some questions you could ask yourself about the thought:
1. Is this thought realistic?
Identify the thoughts you would want questioned. You could think of a specific thought that often comes into your mind that you think is irrational or destructive.
2. Am I basing my thoughts on facts or feelings?
Consider the evidence for and against the thought you have identified. Is there evidence that this thought is accurate?
3. Is the thought correct?
The next step is to make a judgment on this thought. Weigh the evidence for the thought and the one against the thought then objectively decide whether the thought is true or false.
4. Am I viewing the situation as black and white, when it’s really more complicated?
Find out if this thought is really a black or white situation, or if leaves some space for grey shades.
Are your thoughts forcing you to perceive situations as an all-or-nothing affair, jumping into conclusions even when things are not straightforward?
Could you be wrongly interpreting available evidence or making assumptions that are any unverified.
For instance, just because your boyfriend hasn’t called you, does it automatically mean he doesn’t care about you (all or nothing thinking), or could there be something else – such as being in a meeting – that has made him unable to call?
5. Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
Next, try thinking if other people could have interpret the same situation differently and what those interpretations could be.
Find out if your interpretation is among the many valid interpretations, or if yours is an unlikely interpretation compared to others.
Ask yourself if you have exhausted all the relevant evidence or just the evidence that supports your existing beliefs.
Be as objective as possible.
6. Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?
Is there a chance you could be exaggerating a truth.
Have you thought something so many times that you have started thinking of it as the truth, even if it is not?
Try to think about how this thought came to be. Are there any facts to support the thought?
These “Socratic questions” helps to identify and diffuse thoughts that don’t come from a place of truth and offers an opportunity to analyze and evaluate them for truth.
Did you know that visualization can be a great tool for managing pain, relaxing, managing anger and getting anxiety under control? It’s also an extremely effective method of cognitive restructuring.
Guided imagery consists of three major elements:
- Life event visualization
- Image reinstatement
- Feeling focusing
Life Event Visualization
Here, you identify a specific event or theme that is the focus of your therapy sessions.
It could be something that occurred recently e.g. an argument with a friend, or a past event that still disturbs you, like being rejected or bullied when you were young.
You should then keep this theme in mind and let an image arise organically from this life event.
This exercise focuses on the particular image that came to mind when you focused your thought on a particular life event in the previous step.
Depending on the situation you are thinking about and your perception of the situation, this image mean something to you and may result in feelings of sadness, anxiety, being upset, or any another strong emotion.
Here, focus on the feeling that you are experiencing in the session, and allow an image to come from the feeling.
The image will usually arise spontaneously. If it fails, another technique referred to as multisensory evocation can help to clarify the image. You can then have an exploration of your senses to help sharpen the image and identify more detail.
You will then move on to assessing what meaning the image holds for you. Some exercises you can use to do this include:
- Interviewing: In this exercise, you try to question on the role of an entity or object from the mental image. You can do this yourself, or you can be guided by another party, such as a therapist, who will ask you specific questions regarding the image.
- Prompted dialogue: This exercise involves taking on a role and addressing one of the other objects or people in the image (e.g., you could identify as a bird and address the clouds around you as you fly in the air).
- Prompted soliloquy: You will be required to identify an object or entity from the image (e.g., visualize yourself as a bird flying over a lake), and speak from the position of this object or entity (e.g., speak about how it felt to be the bird, and what the flying and the lake below you symbolized).
- Prompted transformation: Here, you shift or change the image; this can be especially helpful when the current image has reached the end of its usefulness as a discussion piece.
- Prompted descriptions: This basic exercise simply involves a third party’s (therapist) use of frequent questions about what you are seeing and feeling. You will work together to identify the meanings attached to the image, after which you begin to challenge, restructure, or replace harmful beliefs and assumptions.
Keeping record of thoughts is an effective way of helping you identify any cognitive distortions that may have gone unquestioned or unnoticed, which a very important step in the restructuring process.
One way to structure a thought record is to identify and note the recurrent thoughts in your mind and the various situations in which they pop up.
When recording your thought, take note of the situation, emotions, thoughts, alternate thoughts and behaviors associated with that thought.
For example, if you are never comfortable being alone, your thought recording could go like this:
- Situation: All my friends are not available, so I will be spending this evening alone.
- Thoughts: Nobody wants to spend time with me. I’m just here sitting alone because no one cares about me.
- Emotions: Disturbed, lonely, dejected.
- Behaviors: Was indoors all night and did nothing useful. Just laid in bed thinking how everyone hates me.
- Alternate Thought: Tonight I’m all alone, everyone is alone from time to time. This is a chance to do whatever I want!
Noting this information down will enable you notice things you may not have noticed before, and look for patterns in your thoughts that could have led to specific distortions in your cognition.
De-Catastrophizing or “What If?” Exercise
This is an exercise where you basically asks yourself “what is the worst that can happen?” and goes ahead to follow a situation rationally up to completion.
Most of the times, we suffer depression and anxieties due to assumptions about how things could go wrong.
We think of the worst case scenario for every situation, even if the likelihood of the worst case scenario happening is too low.
Sometimes, even if the worst case scenario were to play out, it wouldn’t really ruin our lives, yet we stress so much about it.
De-catastrophizing or asking yourself “what if?” helps you to think rationally about what is likely to happen and therefore reduce unreasonable and irrational anxiety.
In addition, de-catastrophizing also helps you see that even the worst-case scenario is manageable, in case it does actually happen.
Self-compassion is about being kind to yourself whenever you feel depressed, moody or feel a sense of suffering. It’s about having a kind and compassionate conversation with yourself.
For instance, let’s assume you have done something you consider stupid and you therefore feel stressed because you have let yourself down.
You might find yourself being hard on yourself and referring to yourself as a “stupid idiot,” something that can lead to stress and anxiety.
When you apply self-compassion, instead of berating yourself, you should acknowledge that you indeed made a mistake that made you feel awful, but then remind yourself that making mistakes is part of being human, and that you have been pretty awesome before.
This way, you start becoming more tolerant to your mistakes.
Cognitive restructuring is a great way of changing your thought patterns and therefore improving your mood and reducing stress.
While learning constructive restructuring won’t be a walk in the park, with enough practice, you will start getting better at it, and eventually, your perception of situations will change completely, such that you will be able to constructively deal with situations that previously made you anxious and stressed out.