Cognitive Restructuring

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This article explains Cognitive Restructuring in a practical way. After reading it, you will understand the basics of this powerful stress management tool.

What is Cognitive Restructuring?

Cognitive Restructuring is a term that was coined by the American cognitive behavioural therapist Albert Ellis, among others. Ellis is one of the founders of Rational Emotive Therapy (R.E.T.) and during his career he was one of the most influential psychotherapists of his time. Cognitive restructuring is a technique within cognitive therapy. Ellis and the American psychiatrist Aaron Beck are considered the founders of that. Cognitive therapy assumes that psychological complaints stem from the way people select, process and deal with information. The situation is not always the cause of, for instance anxiety, but it is the way that people perceive it and interpret the situation. It is the people themselves who determine how heavily a problem weighs for them.


According to Ellis, it is sometimes difficult to ignore emotions driven by thoughts. He therefore indicates that RET is meant to turn down the “volume button” of the emotion. Cognitive restructuring is about letting people see that emotions can make it difficult to “think logically”. Cognitive restructuring teaches people to replace thoughts led by fear with realistic, positive thoughts. This can only be achieved through insight, awareness and much practice. In this way, people learn that, for example, feelings of anxiety are not driven by reason. To make this clear, Ellis makes the distinction between irrational thoughts and rational thoughts.

Irrational thoughts

Irrational thoughts hinder and lead to unpleasant feelings. This entire stream of thoughts races and often stems from a complicated web of all kinds of other thoughts. With these so-called cognitive attributions, people develop a certain way of thinking about themselves, others, situations and events. People are then able to determine for themselves that others will undoubtedly respond negatively to the actions they will take and that limits them. Through cognitive restructuring, people learn how to turn these obstructive thoughts into positive and empowering thoughts.

A beautiful example is when someone is afraid to give a presentation in front of a group of about 20 colleagues. There are several irrational thoughts that can occur:

  • I cannot do it, because I have never done it.
  • I will forget everything and look like a fool.
  • I will undoubtedly get red spots in my neck and then everyone will see that this is my first time.
  • My presentation will be very boring and then my colleagues will yawn.
  • When they ask questions, I will of course not know the answers.
  • My colleagues will laugh at me and will not take me seriously if they see that I am nervous.
  • My colleague X is much better at presentations and everyone will compare me to him.

Musturbatory thinking

One of the greatest pitfalls of people when it comes to irrational thinking is “musturbatory thinking”: thinking everything “must”. According to Ellis, people do this to themselves: no one says that you must come across as intelligent during a presentation, that you cannot make mistakes, that you must be good and experienced, that you must be casual and confident and so forth. With cognitive restructuring, people learn how to stop thinking in “musts” and look at what would happen if they no longer meet this “must” they impose on themselves.

Rational thoughts

When it is clear which “musts” people impose on themselves, cognitive restructuring can slowly make progress towards rational thoughts that are empowering and generate appropriate feelings. Cognitive restructuring teaches people to unmask their cognitive attributes that lead to bad thoughts. The sense that they initially had in the self-conceived arguments, could more easily be disabled this way. They learn how to look back on their previous concerns in a rational way. By understanding what is happening in him, a person will already feel better, reducing the fear.

In the previous example where someone fears giving a presentation to 20 colleagues, it would go like this:

  • It’s true that I have never done it, but there is always a first time. When I tell the group, they will understand that I am nervous. They are my colleagues and their intentions are good.
  • Forgetting things happens. I will make sure to have small flashcards with me, with the topics that I will be covering and if I do get a forget, I will just say that I have lost my train of thought.
  • I will undoubtedly get red spots in my neck, but is that bad? No, because I am trying hard and it is okay that people see that. Let those spots come, everyone can get those while giving a presentation.
  • If my colleagues yawn because they are bored by my presentation, that would be very impolite. At the start, I will tell them that it is the first time I am doing this and they will probably be supportive.
  • If they ask me questions that I do not know the answers to, I will be honest and ask if anyone in the group knows the answers. I will ask for help.
  • If my colleagues laugh at me or do not take me seriously, that would be very childish and unprofessional.
  • It is true that my colleague X is much better at presentations, but he also had to start somewhere and then he was undoubtedly nervous too.

Four phases

According to Beck there are four phases involved in Cognitive Restructuring.

  1. Identification of the concrete thoughts: what am I perceiving, what am I assuming, what do I expect, etc. Through this identification, someone becomes aware of his irrational thoughts.
  2. Analyse the above-mentioned thinking processes and examine what the pros and cons are. What are my own negative attitudes with these thoughts and which emotions are involved? Are these “automatic thoughts” justified or can you look at a situation in a different way?
  3. Look at what the most logical or sensible thoughts are in a situation. Are there any alternatives and if so, what does that feel like? Previous thinking errors become clear and can be transformed into rational thoughts, inviting pleasant feelings.
  4. Practicing and applying alternative views. By experimenting with this, someone experiences what it does to their feeling. If this brings about a positive emotion, this is a nice reference point, which can be rethought at later times. Through exercise and repetition, these rational thoughts will become an automatic thought, making the person in question stronger and more confident.

When someone thinks about being anxious, he is also feeling anxious. It is very difficult to get rid of this. Fear, insecurity, anger, sorrow and jealousy are all concrete negative thoughts we can have about ourselves. R.E.T. focuses on the thinking processes and the concrete thought. Cognitive Restructuring has a wider applicability. It focuses not only on remembering previous assumptions about oneself or about how others think of them. In cognitive restructuring, it is about reorganising thoughts, ideas and suspicions, awareness and then putting it into practice.

It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Could Cognitive Restructuring work for you? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? How do you deal with stress and irrational thinking?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Ellis, A. (2003). Cognitive restructuring of the disputing of irrational beliefs. Cognitive behavior therapy: Applying empirically supported techniques in your practice, 79-83.
  2. Ellis, A., & Whiteley, J. M. (1979). Theoretical and empirical foundations of rational-emotive therapy. Thomson Brooks/ Cole.
  3. Lachman, M. E., Weaver, S. L., Bandura, M., Elliot, E., & Lewkowicz, C. J. (1992). Improving memory and control beliefs through cognitive restructuring and self-generated strategies. Journal of Gerontology, 47(5), P293-P299.

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