Cognitive Restructuring for Stress Relief

A Little Cognitive Restructuring Can Bring Significant Change

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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.

In page 1 of this feature, we discussed how negative thinking and cognitive distortions can impact your stress level. Here's a continuation of how to develop a more positive way of thinking, reducing stress in the process.

Cut Down On The ‘Shoulds’

As I was studying to become a therapist, I once heard a colleague tell a client, "Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself." It was a cute way of helping the client notice how often she said the word ‘should’ when making plans. What’s the problem with the word ‘should’, you may ask? It’s another confining word that implies that there’s one way that things need to be done, and usually it’s a way mandated by someone else that doesn’t necessarily fit for your situation. The truth is, we do things because we want to (usually, but not always, because we have valid reasons for wanting to), and if our self talk reflects this, it usually feels much nicer. “I should call my friend” sounds and feels better as, “I’d like to call my friend”. And if this is not a true statement, you might reconsider the action.

Actively Focus on the Positive

Often people place an inordinate level of focus on the negative, discount the positive, or fail to see the positive altogether. This leads to a world view that can seem overwhelming, and problems that feel insurmountable. When you place a focus on the positive aspects of a situation, and make peace with the negative, the situation becomes less stressful. If people are rude to you done day, go out of your way to notice the people who are neutral or polite. If things just seem to be going wrong one after another, make an effort to notice and appreciate what does go smoothly.

Along these lines, many people find that keeping a gratitude journal -- a daily log of things for which they are grateful -- is immensely helpful in that it not only supplies a list of blessings to look over, but it trains the mind to notice these blessings throughout the day, and it affects their whole experience of stress.

Stay In The Here And Now

When dealing with a problem, try focusing on what’s happening right now, without projecting into the future or dredging up the past; it keeps you dealing with what’s going on now. For example, interpersonal conflicts are often complicated by past grievances, and when people focus on not only what’s happening now, but on all the previous times they’ve been angry at each other, and project into the future that things will never change, their anger and frustration sharply escalates.

Try to stay in the present, the specific problem, and finding a solution that works. This can effectively help you deal with a variety of stressors without becoming as overwhelmed. (For more, also see this article on communication skills.)

Again, if you’re dealing with a more severe form of stress or a clinical disorder, you’ll see the best results with a trained therapist. However, these techniques for cognitive restructuring can be helpful in changing negative thought patterns to relieve daily stress; with practice, you may see a significantly positive change in outlook, and a decrease in your experience of stress.


Burns, David, M.D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Avon Books:New York, NY, 1992.

Fava GA, Ruini C, Rafanelli C, Finos L, Conti S, Grandi S. Six-Year Outcome of Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Prevention of Recurrent Depression. American Journal of Psychiatry. October 2004.