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Cognitive Restructuring for Stress Relief

A Little Cognitive Restructuring Can Bring Significant Change


Updated June 18, 2014

Cognitive Restructuring for Stress Relief
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There’s plenty of solid evidence that how we think about what’s going on in our lives can greatly contribute to whether or not we find events in our lives stressful. Cognitive distortions, or patterns of faulty thinking, can impact our thoughts, behaviors and experience of stress.

Our self talk, the internal dialogue that runs in our heads, interpreting, explaining and judging the situations we encounter, can actually make things seem better or worse, threatening or non-threatening, stressful or…well, you get the picture. Some people tend to see things in a more positive light, and others tend to view things more negatively, putting themselves at a disadvantage in life. (See this article on optimism and pessimism to see how.) But, as our self-talk develops starting in childhood, how does one go about changing these habitual thought patterns?

Cognitive restructuring, a process of recognizing, challenging, and changing cognitive distortions and negative thought patterns can be accomplished with the help of a therapist trained in cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. However, in many cases results can also be achieved at home with the right information and commitment to change. Here are some general tips on changing negative self talk. For more specific tips, keep reading.

Awareness Is The First Step

Become aware of your cognitive distortions of choice. The first step in loosening the grip of cognitive distortions is to become aware of them. Take a look at this list and see which ones sound familiar. If you have a name for them, and some examples of how they work, they become much easier to recognize -- or harder to ignore! Once you become aware of your patterns of faulty thinking, you can begin to challenge these thoughts more and more: look for exceptions if you’re an all-or-nothing thinker; make it a point to look for evidence and try to find alternate conclusions if you find yourself jumping to conclusions or practicing emotional reasoning.

With time and practice, this type of cognitive restructuring will become second nature to challenge your negative thinking patterns, and replacing them with more positive thoughts and views will become easy.

Recognize Your Power

Studies on burnout show that people tend to get more stressed when they feel that they don’t have a choice in what happens to them. In some situations, such as within the context of a job, there is very little choice. However, we can also create a choice-less reality in our minds when we fail to recognize when choices exist. Pay attention to your self talk: do you tend to say you ‘have to’ or ‘can’t’ do things a lot?

The statement, “I can’t work out because I have to volunteer at the kids’ school again,” ignores the reality that both activities are choices. Just because one choice isn’t chosen doesn’t mean it wasn’t a choice to begin with. Changing your ‘have to’s and ‘can’t’s’ into ‘choose to’ and ‘choose not to’ (or some smoother-sounding approximations) can actually remind you that you do have choice in a situation, and help you feel less stressed. “I’d like to work out, but I choose to volunteer at the kids’ school instead,” feels less confined, and sounds more fun, doesn’t it? (For more on recognizing choices in your reality, see this resource on locus of control.)

For more tips on cognitive restructuring, see page 2 of this feature.

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