Cognitive restructuring: Reducing stress by changing your thinking

Hear is a scenario: Tawanda has just handed a report to his boss, Susan. She reads it, thanks him for his work and makes a number of small criticisms.

People Management Issues with Robert Mandeya

Unfortunately, one of the comments “touches a raw nerve” with Tawanda and he storms back to his office feeling angry and upset.

Tawanda knows he needs to get over this, so that his negative mood does not affect others. He takes a few deep breaths, and writes down why he felt attacked by Susan. He then remembers that the overall quality of his work impressed her and that she wants him to improve and grow. He also enjoyed working on the project, and deep down, he knows he did a good job.

After taking a few minutes to reframe the situation, Tawanda no longer feels angry. He calls Susan to apologise for his behaviour and then uses her suggestions to improve his report.

In this situation, Tawanda used cognitive restructuring to overcome negative, reactive thinking. In this article, we will look at how you can use cognitive restructuring.

What is cognitive restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring is a useful technique for understanding unhappy feelings and moods and for challenging the sometimes-wrong “automatic beliefs” that can lie behind them. As such, you can use it to reframe the unnecessary negative thinking that we all experience from time to time.

Bad moods are unpleasant, they can reduce the quality of your performance and they undermine your relationships with others. Cognitive restructuring helps you to change the negative or distorted thinking that often lies behind these moods. As such, it helps you approach situations in a more positive frame of mind.

Cognitive restructuring was developed by psychologist Albert Ellis in the mid-1950s, based on the earlier work of others, and it is a core component in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). You can use CBT to control and change negative thoughts, which are sometimes linked with damaging behaviours.
Cognitive restructuring has been used successfully to treat a wide variety of conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addictions, anxiety, social phobias, relationship issues and stress.
For example, a 2007 study found that cognitive restructuring helped participants who experienced severe grief, while a 2003 study discovered that it reduced the symptoms and effects of PTSD.

These uses are beyond the scope of this article and you should consult a qualified medical practitioner if you are experiencing issues like these. However, you can use the technique yourself to reframe less serious, day-to-day negative thoughts.

For example, you can use it to overcome negative thinking before you speak in public or to improve your mood when you have a bad day. You can also use it to think positively before you go into a performance review or a job interview or before you engage in a difficult conversation. It is also helpful for overcoming fear of failure and fear of success and for beating self-sabotage.

How to use cognitive restructuring

  • Calm yourself: if you are still upset or stressed by the thoughts you want to explore, you may find it hard to concentrate on using the tool. Use meditation or deep breathing to calm yourself down if you feel particularly stressed or upset.
  • Identify the situation: knowing the problem is as good as half solving the problem. Start by describing the situation that triggered your negative mood and write this into your diary or note or just a paper. During training I usually go with participants through a practical exercise using a boxed puzzle for self assessment — the results are amazing. Analyse your mood: Next, write down the mood or moods, that you felt during the situation.

Here, moods are the fundamental feelings that we have, but they are not thoughts about the situation. Dr Greenberger and Padesky suggest an easy way to distinguish moods from thoughts: you can usually describe moods in one word, while thoughts are more complex. For example a situation such as: “He trashed my suggestion in front of my co-workers” would be a thought, while the associated moods might be humiliation, frustration, anger, or insecurity.

  • Identify automatic thoughts: now, write own the natural reactions, or “automatic thoughts”, you experienced when you felt the mood. In the example above, your thoughts might be:

“Maybe my analysis skills are not good enough.”

“Have I failed to consider these things?”

“He or she has not liked me since …”

“He or she is so rude and arrogant!”

“No one likes me.”

“But my argument is sound.”

“This undermines my future with this company.”

In this example, the most distressing thoughts (the “hot thoughts”) are likely to be “Maybe my analysis skills are not good enough,” and “No one likes me”.

  • Find objective supportive evidence: identify the evidence that objectively supports your automatic thoughts. In our example, you might write the following:

“The meeting moved on and decisions were made, but my suggestion was ignored.”

“He or she identified a flaw in one of my arguments.”

Your goal is to look objectively at what happened, and then to write down specific events or comments that led to your automatic thoughts. I cannot exhaust everything here, there is a lot more on this subject.

Mandeya is a senior executive training consultant and communication in management advisor, a personal coach in leadership and professional development with the Institute of Leadership Research and Development. You can contact him on or The views contained herein are personal views.


Comments are closed.

AMH logo

© 2016 The Zimind. All Rights reserved.