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, includes interpreting, explaining, and judging the situations we encounter. This actually make things seem better or worse, threatening or non-threatening, or stressful. 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. But, as our self-talk starts developing 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.

In many cases, positive results with cognitive restructuring can also be achieved at home with the right information and commitment to change.

Here are some tips on changing negative self-talk.

Awareness Is the First Step

It's difficult to change something we don't know is there. With many cognitive distortions, including "all-or-nothing" thinking, jumping to conclusions, and emotional (versus logical) reasoning, it's difficult to recognize that any distortions are taking place, and the effects of this distorted thinking follow seamlessly.

To be better able to recognize distortions when they come into play, familiarize yourself with a list and be on the lookout. Once you know what to look for, you may recognize them in yourself and others, and then begin challenging and changing them. With time and practice, this type of cognitive restructuring can become more automatic.

Recognize Your Power

When we feel no choice in a situation, it can create significant stress and even lead to burnout. 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 a 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? Soon, you'll become more automatic in amending your cognitive distortions, and know-how to develop a more positive way of thinking, reducing stress in the process.

Cut Down on the ‘Shoulds’

It's easier to tackle a challenge when you feel that you're doing it because you want to and not because you have to. In this vein, the word "should" is a harbinger of stress. It makes most of us feel that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and that we must do things a certain way.

When we feel the pressure of the word "should," we may want to remind ourselves that when we feel we "should" do something, we're not always right. Start questioning your "shoulds" and be sure that whatever you do, you're doing it because you want to and feel it's the best path for yourself. This is true for others, too.

Actively Focus on the Positive

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

Stay in the Here and Now

Try to stay in the present, focus on the specific problem, and find a solution that works. This can effectively help you deal with a variety of stressors without becoming overwhelmed.

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 significant positive change in outlook and a decrease in your experience of stress.

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