Cognitive Restructuring: Reducing Stress by Changing Your Thinking
All people have at one point or another found themselves in toxic situations, where they feel affected, aggravated and upset. To where their emotions take them to a destructive state of mind and they do not think clearly and do not take the best decisions for themselves and their minds.
There are techniques you can use to control your overview of situations better, to where you are more objective in negative situations and keep a cool head.
If you use those techniques the right way, you will always stay on top of your emotions and never take actions in the wrong direction because you felt affected or victimized.
WHAT IS COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING?
Cognitive restructuring is the conscious journey from identifying toxic feelings through eliminating destructive thoughts and actions to coming up with solutions for negative thinking.
It is a tool for better control over your thought process and management of your mindset that can always take you from a bad situation to a healthy state of mind.
If you use this tool whenever you feel aggravated, you will know you always have the time to chill out, you have the technique to return to healthy thinking and you will not make mistakes out of anger. You will improve the way you live and the way you are perceived by others. You will feel less anxious and depressed. You will feel more in control.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING?
Cognitive restructuring is a step by step process that will allow you the time and give you the tools to return from a negative state of mind, to healthy way of thinking and an objective overview of the world.
Contain your emotions
Cognitive restructuring can be applied in any situation you feel your emotions are getting the best of you.
Let’s say you have suspicions your friend has been talking bad behind your back. You feel paranoid and suspicious. You want to lash out but you are not actually sure. Taking action too soon could ruin the relationship for you.
Or another example. You evaluation is coming up at work and among the overall positive feedback, you receive several bad comments about a project you feel very near and dear to your heart. Overreacting could be detrimental to your relationship with your manager. You cannot afford to be emotional.
Working on cognitive restructuring can be very beneficial for romantic relationships. When two people are close in each other’s lives it inevitably happens they disappoint each other. The more you love you significant other the deeper you could feel they hurt you. However, lashing at them is not an option. You need to remember disappointment is temporary and what is most important is to make sure you always keep each other happy.
Please be advised, we are not saying you should never react to a friend who is misbehaving, a manager who is overly controlling or a significant other who is not being their best with you.
However, in all of those situations you should be careful to give yourself the chance to look at the events objectively, assess how their actions affect your life and react properly and proportionally. And not take actions when you are under the influence of intense emotions.
In order to give yourself that chance, you need, first and foremost, time to go through your emotions. Take yourself out of the situation gracefully. Make sure you do not hurt the feelings of the people involved.
Calm yourself down
So the first thing you need to do is to take yourself out of the situation. Meaning you will now no longer be under the stressor that created your negative emotions in the first place.
The friend you suspect is talking behind your back – stop communicating with them for a while.
The manager who is criticizing your work – limit interactions with them as much as possible. Take several days off work if you have to.
The significant other who is disappointing you – tell them you need some ‘me’ time and concentrate on your relationship with you for a while.
Now you are no longer under the stress of communicating with whoever is aggravating you.
Try and distract yourself from the negative thoughts. Anything that will take you out of the negative emotions. Distract yourself. Go to the movies. Go out with positive friends. Work, if that helps you. Spend time on your hobby.
You do not just need to be out of the situation physically. You need to be out of it mentally.
Don’t worry. You are not running away from a problem. You are just allowing yourself the time to go back to a healthy state of mind where you think clearly. You are actually working towards a solution.
Try and clean your thoughts completely out of any connotations with the event that upset you. Meditation could help. Deep breathing and physically calming yourself down will be very beneficial for you.
What you are doing is you are preparing yourself to look at the same event with fresh eyes.
This process might not help from the first try. Depending on how affected you were by the traumatic event, you could try to gently introduce thoughts about the event back to your mind.
Is your brain racing? Is your heart pumping? Are your fingers tingly? You are not ready. Go see another movie.
If you don’t know whether you are ready you most probably aren’t. And you need to continue staying out of the situation or you risk making a mistake.
When you are ready, you will feel it.
Here is a helpful video that will help you calm down from the state of anxiety:
Identify the source of your feelings
Now you are completely calm about the situation. The good news is you have distracted yourself enough from the event that it is completely out of your mind at this point. The bad news is you have distanced yourself so much from the event that it is completely out of your mind at this point.
Now how are you supposed to try and make an objective assessment of the situation if you don’t even remember it?
Yes, it is true, that part could be difficult. But you are on the right path.
What is also true is that you have to remember the situation as accurately as you can. Are journaling? Congrats, your problem is solved.
But even if you do not have a written account of the situation so far, just make one.
The best way is to use some way of digital writing so you can edit your story when you remember another detail. Use text, pictures, lists and charts to represent the situation objectively.
The text will probably be full of emotional statements. Use it to identify the moment when you became emotional or angry.
The chart will probably give you a good idea of the timeline and/or your thought process at the time.
Did your emotions get the better of you? When? What exactly happened that started you on the vicious spiral towards losing control?
This is an important question to identify whether your behavior was rational and you were rightfully upset, or you were under the influence of automatic thoughts.
Automatic thoughts are a key factor in losing control over your emotions.
Let’s say you are a lady who feel self-conscious about her weight. You catch your significant other staring at you with a blank face.
Your thought process would go something like that:
He is looking at me. Therefore he is judging my body. If his judgement was positive he would reassure me. But his face does not show that. He must dislike my body. That is insulting.
And if you are self conscious this thought process possibly repeated so many times you go straight from ‘He is looking at me’ to ‘That is insulting’. The issue with that is you will stop judging objectively the context. And you could go around feeling offended from your significant other when you do not necessarily have to be.
Because the automatic thoughts are very often negative and reach the wrong conclusions, they increase the chance for you to lose control over your emotions. If you detect automatic thinking on your side in the event, chances are you were wrong in the situation. And you most probably did not have a reason to feel upset, angry or offended.
Learn more about automatic thoughts:
Put the source in context – what happened
Write down the thoughts that made you lose control or feel upset.
Below them create a list from everything you believe lead to those emotions:
- The context:
- I was tired and depressed
- I was late for work that day
- I was hungry
- Me and my girlfriend have been having issues recently
- Jane did not call me for my birthday last year
- The actions of others with precise examples
- They criticized me by saying ‘…’
- They disappointed me by doing ‘…’
- They disrespected me by ‘…’
When you describe other people’s words or actions make sure you are precise. What exactly did they tell you? What were their words for you? Are you sure they used words with negative connotations? Or were they mostly neutral?
When you describe other people’s actions, make sure you are precise, too. Are you sure you detected facial expressions or body language in you manager that supported your opinion they were really negative towards you even though they were using neutral language in your evaluation?
Just because you have automatic thought process, that does not mean you are not getting to the right conclusion. You just got there too fast and for the wrong reasons.
However, if you want to be objective you cannot scratch off the possibility that an event or a person was truly upsetting to you for a good reason.
Put the source in context – what did not happen
By now you have looked through all of the positive evidence. Every facial micro expression, every word, every action that would justify you should feel bad. You have identified the aspects of the situation that are upsetting, depressing, and hurtful. All the evidence that would support you feeling bad.
Now try and find evidence to support the contrary. Objective contradictory evidence.
Anything that would lead you to believe the actions or the words or the events did not actually constitute a reason for you to feel the way you felt about it. That you could find another way to see the situation.
In the case with your suspicions towards your friend. So you entered the room and there was an awkward pause and you jumped to conclusions. Was the pause so awkward, though? How long was that pause? Was it really awkward?
Could there be other reasons why no one said anything? Could they be planning a surprise for you? Or could they be talking about a topic that they do not want to share with you because it will hurt you, or upset you? Could it be completely irrelevant to you?
And finally, even if they did talk about you, has your relationship changed in a way that would evoke those feelings in you – is your friendship cancelled, so you feel depressed? Or do you have evidence to believe you are all still very much friends?
What is the situation with your boss? They did criticize your favorite project and maybe they did not feel too good about it? But does that mean they hate your work overall? Or that they do not cherish you as a valuable employee? Do you have evidence to support the contrary? Their overall feedback was pretty positive. They have always supported you in your suggestions during discussions and brainstorming sessions. They stand behind you when other team mates attack crucial decisions of yours. Maybe you did overreact after all.
Your significant other was hurtful by not paying attention to you or by withdrawing their affection. They forgot it was your anniversary and never got you a gift. And you are convinced they do not love you in the way you love them. Do you have evidence to suggest the contrary? Is that the only occasion you felt that way? Do they support you every day and just forgot the one date or is this just indicative of their overall behavior? Do you have reason to give them the benefit of the doubt?
Try and see the situation from a new angle
Once your emotions are out of the way you are free to think objectively and look at all of the data with a more philosophical overview on life. More objectivity. With freedom of thinking and operating.
There are several important questions that you need to ask yourself here.
- Are your emotions stable now? Or is it possible that the situation keeps repeating to where it will put you in a viscious cycle of cognitive restructuring after cognitive restructuring? Just because you have a tool to remove the stress that hinders your decision making does not mean that you should put yourself under that same stress again and again?
- Do you have a more objective overview of the issue? Did you manage to change your opinion of the events that made you lose control or fall in an unfortunate state of mind? Are your conclusions now the same or different. Did the cognitive restructuring change your plan in addition to calming you down?
- Do you need to change the situation? If your conclusions do stay the same, does the situation require a change of any sort?
- What is the best possible action to take? Do you need to discuss your position with your manager? Do you need to take yourself out of a toxic relationship with friends who are not beneficial to your life? Is your romantic relationship not satisfying your needs for closeness and reciprocated feelings?
- What are you losing? Whenever you consider your next actions, make sure that you are not doing too much damage on your life for too little of an offence. For example, if you discover you have enough evidence to support your friend was talking behind your back, can you let that pass, or do you feel that is too big of a crime against your friendship and you need to quit?
- Do you need a moment to grief? Normally you have done cognitive restructuring to remedy the unhealthy events a traumatic event is having on your mental health and your decision making. If you need to take yourself away from that trauma by closing a relationship with a friend or significant other, you will put yourself through turmoil again. Make sure you are prepared to face the consequences.
- Do you need to make amends? If you decide you have made a wrong judgement influenced by your emotions, you need to make amends with the people you left behind to give yourself some peace of mind. Apologize for withdrawing.
Work on your current state of mind
Once the trauma is behind you, try and maintain a healthy state of mind about the situation. You cannot afford to keep grudges.
Manage the way you remember the events and take control of the narrative.
You were in a place where you felt overwhelmed by emotional turmoil. You were pondering doing changes in your life. It was difficult for you to find a solution and a happier place of mind. You had to withdraw from your relationship with people and spend some ‘me’ time on analyzing events, the memories of which were hurtful for you.
There are two ways you can look at the situation. You could be the loser. You could be the awkward person who made a big deal out of nothing. The one who let their emotions get to them and control them. The one who cannot stay calm in stressful situations.
Or you could be the winner. You could be the person who identified an issue and worked on it. The one who was smart enough not to let their emotions take control even though they were intense. The person who did not sacrifice their relationship with their friends, their significant other or their team members just because they allowed themselves a knee-jerk reaction to something that traumatized them.
You are the owner of your narrative. A lot of people feel guilt if they choose to remember a situation in a way that benefits them. There are no rules here. You did the best you could in a difficult situation and you deserve to remember it that way.
There could be many true ways to remember one story. Choose to remember it in a way that will give you more peace of mind.
Try and remember to give yourself positive affirmations whenever you can. Whenever you feel the pressure of your emotions trying to take a toll on your thought process, train yourself to find evidence to the contrary of whatever it is upsets you.
Try to break the vicious cycle of negative automatic thoughts. Whenever you feel those are coming up, trace the thought back to the source as soon as you can. Try and think logically about the issue and see if you get to the same conclusion.
Cognitive restructuring is a powerful tool that will allow you to take yourself out of a situation and look at it objectively.
With time, you will get used to the technique and it will become a handy part of your mental toolkit against depression, anger and despair.
With time, it could completely change your perspective about employing a sustainable way of thinking and will completely eliminate situations for you where you reacted out of hand.
Cognitive restructuring takes some time and serious work before you trust the process completely. You could doubt yourself – that is normal. As it always is when you try to deal with hurtful subjects in your life.
However, follow the steps precisely and you will find your way of thinking has been healed and improved.
You are allowed to manage the way you feel. You are allowed to manage the way you remember hurtful events.
You are allowed, and now you are able.
I was having a cup of coffee at the café a few blocks from my apartment when I noticed something …