I’ll be completely honest (and biased). Cognitive restructuring (CR) is one of my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE thought-adjusting techniques I’ve ever been taught. I now teach a CBT-informed (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) version of this to almost every teenage and tween patient struggling with depression and/or anxiety that I work with. Why? It’s so simple, so effective, and can be applied to literally any situation that life throws at us. It is a practice of being gentle to ourselves (aka self-compassion). Let’s face it. We are SO tough on ourselves as we strive to be the smartest, have the most friends, always do the right thing, have the most fun, be good enough for others, etc. … you name it. Let’s work on taking a break from this and allow us to be, well, human.
What about CR is helpful?
- It helps improve our awareness of shame triggers, negative self-talk, irrational, and depressive/anxious thoughts. Awareness is the first step toward improvement, and is arguably the most important part of this therapeutic practice.
- It teaches us how to gently stop our irrational/negative thoughts, so that we can switch to something more realistic. For the love of God please do not skip over this next sentence. This is NOT a harsh stop like a STOP sign that we didn’t see and have to slam on the breaks, skidding to avoid a ticket by the cop that is, of course, sitting right there. It’s more like a gentle tap on the back with the kind reminder of, “hey, go ahead and switch gears, my friend.”
- It allows us to practice self-compassion, realistic thinking, and non-judgmental observation … extra emphasis on the REALISTIC thinking.
I learned this method from my therapist about 6 months ago, and it sounds cheesy, but it literally changed my life. It changed the way I look at situations, the way I look at others, and the way I look at myself. It’s underrated.
I’ll be honest. I am incredibly skeptical when it comes to certain therapeutic methods. I research the hell out of them, and that’s how I decide whether I’m actually going to take the time to practice it. This one passed with flying colors. Like I said, I even started teaching it to a lot of kiddos on our unit, and I’ve gotten tons of positive feedback on it. One of the perfectionistic 16-year-old girls I was working with said, “Man. I wish people could learn this at birth. This would have been nice to know before middle school and high school.” Another, more challenging, young woman told me, “Ok, this actually doesn’t seem like it requires much energy. I’ll actually be motivated enough to use it.” Hey, whatever works! Last plug… I was asked by the teens and some coworkers to create a program that I can lead at night that teaches this because they found it to be simple and effective. I’m all in and was excited to hear those responses.
Let’s get to the HOW TO. It’s only 3 steps, and I’ll give examples along the way.
This is easier said and done. It’s actually the most challenging part of cognitive restructuring, because those of us with anxiety and depression are typically comfortable with and/or used to our negative, shameful, critical, depressive and anxious thoughts. It’s important to notice the situations and thoughts that come to mind.
- Example A: Situation- I am in class and answer a question wrong. Thoughts- “Wow. I should have never raised my hand in the first place. This is so embarrassing. Everybody probably thinks I’m an idiot. I’m not doing that again.”
- Example B: Situation- I see two people look at me and laugh. Thoughts- “I bet they’re saying something bad about me. I should _____ so that I’ll be better at ______. I’m so embarrassed. They’re not going to like me now.”
Here are common thought distortions that may be beneficial for us to become aware of:
2. After noticing the thought, switch gears.
Pro Tip #1: Think of a cute little puppy or kitten just gently nudging you toward the self-care path 😊. Gentle. Subtle. Healing.
3. Replace this thought with something more kind, non-judgmental, and/or realistic.
Example A: “Nobody answers questions right 100% of the time. It was courageous that I stepped out of my comfort zone and challenged myself. I am learning and doing the best I can. I give myself permission to fail sometimes, just like I give myself permission to do well.”
Example B: “I don’t actually know that I’m being talked about. I notice that I am feeling insecure. I am learning to accept myself, and this is a shame-trigger I am working through. I can stand things that I don’t like. I can only control my reaction. I do my best to be a good friend. I am loved.”
Pro Tip #2: Sometimes coming up with alternative, realistic, self-compassionate thoughts can be challenging. I’ve noticed that using phrases like, “I am learning _____,” “I am working on _____,” and “this is a normal human experience,” tend to be applicable to many self-doubting situations. A simple google of “positive affirmations for ___insert situation here_” will provide tons of examples that may be useful or help get the creative juices flowing to think of more! This can be especially valuable for those that are new to CR.
The Science Behind CR
Taking the info sesh one step further with NEUROBIOLOGY . Ugh!!! Seeing this word makes me geek TF (urban dictionary definition= the f&%^) out. Seriously, my voice gets high, my heart starts racing, and once I start talking, I can’t stop. Don’t be alarmed, I’ll try for the sake of this post.
Generally speaking, our brains are plastic, flexible, changeable. Typically, when we have anxiety or depression, our “irrational” thought pathways in our brain are incredibly strong. Our amygdala, associated with strong emotions, is usually overactive, and our prefrontal cortex (PFC), associated with planning, decision-making, and higher order thought function, is typically underactive. When we start CR, it is a conscious practice where we actively need to replace our thoughts. Over time, as our brain is “rewired” and stronger pathways to the PFC develop, this practice becomes subconscious… a habit! The “irrational thinking pattern” pathways are weakened. Kinda sweet, huh? It takes awhile for this process to take place, but in the long run it can help reduce anxiety and depression, and increase self-worth and self-compassion. By no means do I think CR is the best, never-fail, only-thing-you-need technique. It’s just another practice to add to our “self-care toolbox.” I highly recommend giving it a try 😊.
*I will link the studies that support what I’ve mentioned when I get back to work. I am currently vacationing and don’t have access to the academic library!
My goal this week is to continue practicing self-compassion and replacing my shame-triggering and irrational thoughts with kind, realistic and gentle words. I know I won’t be perfect at it, and I know it will take time and practice. I give myself the permission to fail at times, but I know my small efforts will add up to make a big difference.
Have a wonderful week,