What Is Cognitive Reframing?

Counseling Session
Christopher Ames / Getty Images

What Is Cognitive Reframing?

Cognitive reframing is a technique used to shift your mindset so you're able to look at a situation, person, or relationship from a slightly different perspective. Cognitive reframing is something that you can do at home or anytime you experience distorted thinking, but it can be helpful to have a therapist's assistance, particularly if you are caught in a negative thought pattern. When the technique is used in a therapeutic setting and practiced with the help of a therapist, it is known as cognitive restructuring.

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.

Techniques

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 the dangerous behavior again in the future.

What Cognitive Reframing Can Help With

Cognitive restructuring can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including:

  • Addiction
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Insomnia
  • Pain disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Stress

In addition to mental health conditions, cognitive restructuring has been found to help people cope with the following:

  • Caregiving
  • Grief and loss
  • Low self-esteem
  • Positivity
  • Relationship issues

Benefits of Cognitive Reframing

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.

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.

Change Your Point of View

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.

Effectiveness

There have been numerous studies on the therapeutic effects of cognitive restructuring and cognitive reframing for patients as well as the benefits of cognitive reframing for providers and caregivers in terms of preventing burnout. Here are a few examples:

  • Cognitive reframing has been proven an effective technique to help minimize anxiety and depression and enhance quality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A study on practitioners who treated individuals with substance use disorder found that cognitive reframing helped them experience less burnout and greater treatment results.
  • In caregivers of individuals with dementia, cognitive reframing was found to reduce caregiver anxiety, depression, and stress and enhance communication and overall quality of life.
  • One study on people with mental illness and PTSD found that cognitive restructuring reduced symptoms and improved functioning.
  • A 2014 study showed that cognitive restructuring reduced post-event processing (PEP), or the reflective thoughts you have after a social situation, for individuals with social anxiety disorder.

Things to Consider

While you can practice cognitive reframing on your own, it requires time, effort, and patience. It may be challenging to be honest with yourself and spot the negative thought patterns getting in your way on your own. When you know what to be on the lookout for, however, it becomes easier.

Some common cognitive distortions, or tendencies and patterns of thinking or believing, 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

Consider whether it's best to address these cognitive distortions on your own, or to work with a therapist to identify and develop coping strategies. Especially if you're experiencing suicidal ideation, it's imperative to speak with a mental health professional.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

How to Get Started

If you are ready to try cognitive restructuring for yourself or a loved one, there are some steps that you can take to help find the best therapist for your needs.

  • Get a referral. Talk to your doctor for a referral to a therapist. You can also check out the directory of certified therapists offered by the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists to locate a licensed professional in your area.
  • Ask about insurance. Contact your therapy provider to be sure that they take your insurance, and check with your insurance provider about how many sessions they cover per year.
  • Weigh your options, including whether you're more comfortable with face-to-face or online therapy.
  • Think about what brought you to therapy, and be prepared to answer questions about your medical and personal history.
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. Hosey M, Wegener S. Essentials of Pain Medicine. Elsevier; 2018. doi:10.1016/C2014-0-03837-3

  3. Mueser KT, Gottlieb JD, Xie H, et al. Evaluation of cognitive restructuring for post-traumatic stress disorder in people with severe mental illnessBr J Psychiatry. 2015;206(6):501-508. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.114.147926

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. Shamblaw AL, Rumas RL, Best MW. Coping during the COVID-19 pandemic: Relations with mental health and quality of lifeCanadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne. 2021;62(1):92-100. doi:10.1037/cap0000263

  7. Madrigal KB. Practitioner cognitive reframing: Working more effectively in addictionsFed Pract. 2017;34(8):26-27.

  8. Vernooij-Dassen M, Draskovic I, McCleery J, Downs M. Cognitive reframing for carers of people with dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Nov 9;(11):CD005318. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005318.pub2

  9. Shikatani B, Antony MM, Kuo JR, Cassin SE. The impact of cognitive restructuring and mindfulness strategies on postevent processing and affect in social anxiety disorderJ Anxiety Disord. 2014;28(6):570-579. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.05.012

Additional Reading