Using Cognitive Reframing for Mental Health

Mother and daughter talking
Tetra Images / Getty Images

Reframing is a technique used in therapy to help create a different way of looking at a situation, person, or relationship by changing its meaning. Also referred to as cognitive reframing, it's a strategy therapists often use to help clients look at situations from a slightly different perspective.

While widely used in therapeutic settings, cognitive reframing is also something that you can do at home or anytime you experience distorted thinking. It can be helpful to have a therapist's assistance, particularly if you are caught in a negative thought pattern.

The essential idea behind reframing is that the frame through which a person views a situation determines their point-of-view. When that frame is shifted, the meaning changes and thinking and behavior often change along with it.

Another way to understand the concept of reframing is to imagine looking through the frame of a camera lens. The picture seen through the lens can be changed to a view that is closer or further away. By slightly changing what is seen in the camera, the picture is both viewed and experienced differently.

Cognitive Reframing in Therapy

Reframing may be used to change the way people think, feel, and behave. Here are a few examples of how reframing may be used in therapy: 

Family Therapy

In a family therapy session, Carla complains bitterly that her mother is overly involved in her life, constantly nagging her about what she should be doing. In attempting to shift Carla's negative view of her mother, the therapist offers this reframe: "Isn't it loving of your mother to teach you ways to take care of yourself so you'll be prepared to live on your own without her?"

Individual Therapy

A person in individual therapy is struggling to accept the limitations of having a chronic illness. The therapist attempts to reframe how they view their illness by saying, "Can you think of your illness as a built-in reminder to take care of your health throughout your life?"

A man is upset that he wasn't chosen for a promotion. The therapist asks him what positive things could come from not being promoted. The man might note that the new job came with some unwanted additional stresses and that he might be able to work toward another role that is better suited to his needs and long-term career goals.

A woman is upset about getting a ticket for texting while driving, so her therapist talks about the dangers of texting while driving. Eventually, she is able to see that the ticket might help deter her from engaging in such dangerous behavior again in the future.

When done independently as a way to shift your mindset, this process is referred to as cognitive reframing. When this is practice with the help of a therapist, it is known as cognitive restructuring.

Cognitive Distortions You Can Reframe

There are a number of cognitive distortions that can contribute to problems such as anxiety and depression. Some common distortions that can cause negative thought patterns include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing situations in absolute terms
  • Blaming: Attributing complex problems to a single cause
  • Catastrophizing: Always imaging the worst thing that can happen in any situation
  • Discounting the positive: Ignoring or discounting the good things that happen to you
  • Mental filters: Focusing only on the negatives and never on the positives
  • "Should" statements: Always feeling like you've failed to live up to expectations of what you "should" do in a situation

These types of negative thoughts can be transformed through cognitive reframing. For example, you might learn to stop catastrophizing situations and instead imagine the good things that could happen.

How to Practice Cognitive Reframing

While this technique is often used in therapy, it's something that you can use at home as well. With practice, you can learn to remind yourself that your initial conclusion is only one possible explanation. Some steps you can take to reframe a situation:

Ask Questions

It's easy to get into the mindset that your outlook is the only way to look at a problem. Cognitive reframing teaches you to ask yourself questions like, "Is there another way to look at this situation?" or, "What are some other possible reasons this could have happened?" Pointing out alternatives can help you see things from another view.

Validate Emotions

Don't try to deny or invalidate what you are feeling. If you are helping a child or teen reframe a situation, remember to validate their feelings by saying, "I know you are nervous that she hasn't called you back. I know when I feel nervous I always imagine the worst-case scenarios but often, those things I imagine aren't even true."

Show Compassion

You also might help yourself or your child stay mentally strong by asking, "What would you say to a friend who had this problem?" You may find that you're more likely to speak to others in a kinder and more compassionate way than you talk to yourself.

The goal should be to help develop healthy self-talk. Eventually, you'll learn to recognize there are many ways to view the same situation.

A Word From Verywell

Distorted thinking can cause psychological distress and contribute to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Cognitive reframing, whether it is practiced independently or with the help of a therapist, can be a helpful way to turn problems or negative thoughts into opportunities for change and growth.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Clark DA. Cognitive restructuring. In: Hofmann SG, Dozois D, eds.,The Wiley Handbook for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, First Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2014. doi:10.1002/9781118528563.wbcbt02  

  2. Kelly J, Zervas N. How to improve parent‐teen communication with validation. Brown Univ Child Adolesc Behav Lett. 2016;32:1-7. doi:10.1002/cbl.30129

  3. Kross E, Bruehlman-Senecal E, Park J, et al. Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: how you do it mattersJ Pers Soc Psychol. 2014;106(2):304–324. doi:10.1037/a0035173

Additional Reading