What are cognitive distortions & how can cognitive restructuring help me?

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Cognitive distortions refer to a biased way of thinking about ourselves, others and the world around us. These automatic patterns of thinking, if extreme negative, can lead to negative emotions & behaviours in response. 

Cognitive restructuring refers to the process in Cognitive Behaviorral Therapy (CBT) of identifying & changing inaccurate and unhelpful negative thoughts that contribute negative emotions and behaviours.

A CBT therapist will guide you through the process of challenging cognitive distortions, which in tern, helps to change negative and unhelpful cycles of thinking, behaving and feeling which can ensue when left unchallenged. 

Some types of thoughts, which we often collectively describe as ‘extreme’ or ‘unhelpful’ thinking styles, are summerised below.

If you recognise these types of thinking (which we all get from time to time), are coming thick and fast, you may well benefit from learning a CBT technique called cognitive restructuring.

CBT therapists help you to learn how to cognitively restructure what lies behind negative moods and/or behaviours. The types of thoughts that may undermine your performance, or damage your relationships with other people.

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Extreme or dichotomous thinking, when looked at with a curious eye, can be challenged and moderated by introducing the notion that there is a range of possibilities between the extremes.

Looking at the facts and evidence for an against a thought you can review what supports or undermines the thought and start to consider an alternative and more helpful perspective.


Unhelpful, extreme or dichotomous thinking biases to look out for.

Catastrophising - Imagining and believing that the worst possible thing will happen. When we view the situation as terrible, awful, dreadful, & horrible, even though the reality is that the problem itself is quite small.

Emotional Reasoning - When we base our view of situations or ourself on the way we are feeling. I feel scared so it must be scary! 

Mental Filter - A "filtering in" and "filtering out" process – like a "tunnel vision," focusing on only one part of a situation & ignoring the rest. Typically, looking at the negative parts of a situation & forgetting the positive parts.

Jumping to Conclusions or Mind Reading - We assume that we know what someone else is thinking (mind reading) and when we make predictions about what is going to happen in the future (predictive thinking).

Black & white thinking - Looking at things from two ends of a spectrum, 0 or 100. Believing that something or someone can be only good or bad, right or wrong, rather than anything in-between or ‘shades of grey’

Overgeneralisation - We take one instance in the past or present, and impose it on all current or future situations. “You always…” or “Everyone…”, or “I never…” are typically signs of this.

Should & Must statements - “I should…” or “I must…” statements put unreasonable demands or pressure on yourself & others. When they are unhelpful they can sometimes create unrealistic expectations.


Steps for carrying out cognitive restructuring in order to reframe unhelpful thoughts.

To use cognitive restructuring, you might be guided through something similar to the following process:

  • Firstly give yourself a moment to breath & slow down.

  • Write down the situation that triggered the negative thoughts.

  • Identify the moods you felt in the situation. You might also want to note the intensity of the mood.

  • Notice your physical sensations - What did I notice in my body? Where did I feel it?

  • Write down the automatic thoughts you experienced when you felt the mood. The most significant of these we sometimes call your "hot thoughts.” You could ask yourself; What went through my mind? What was it about the situation that disturbed or upset me? What did those thoughts/images/memories mean to me, or tell me about the situation? What am I responding to? What 'button' is this pressing for me? What would be the worst thing about that, or that could happen?

  • Identify the evidence that supports these hot thoughts. You could ask yourself; Is this fact or opinion? What would someone else say about this situation? What's the bigger picture or helicopter view? What is another way of looking at this? Is my reaction in proportion to the actual event? Is this really as important as it seems? Identify the evidence that contradicts the hot thoughts.

  • Now, identify fair, balanced thoughts about the situation.

  • Finally, observe your mood now, and decide on your next steps.

You can go through this process when you experience a negative mood, or when you feel fear, apprehension, anger or anxiety about a person or event.

This process is usually done collaboratively between you and your therapist, often in the form of a dialogue, a role play or using a CBT model to help visually demonstrate the impact that unhelpful, extreme thinking patterns have on feelings and behaviours and negative cycles.

From this type of initial cognitive restructuring work, a CBT therapist will be able to guide you through a course of evidence based therapy using a serious of techniques to help you make positive changes to your thinking, feeling and behaviours.

Lisa Johnston 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapist 




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