What Is Cognitive Reframing And Why Do Therapists Use It?
By: Dylan Buckley
Updated December 21, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Robin Brock
"Cognitive reframing" is a not phrase most people use every day, and it can often be confusing as there are so many ways to view this term. Aptly named, cognitive reframing describes a process in which we change the way we look at things. When we view things negatively or in a negative frame, there are detrimental effects that we wouldn't experience if we framed things in a more positive way.
The objective for people in therapy is to reframe certain situations so that they are no longer affected by that negative state of mind. How? We'll talk more about this process as we go through this article and evaluate this type of treatment method.
What Does Cognitive Reframing Mean?
When life presents us with a situation, we usually decide what meaning the situation has for us almost immediately. That meaning is the “frame” we give it. However, we don't have to continue viewing it in that frame. Instead, we can give it a different meaning by changing the way we think and feel about it. Perspective is, largely, a choice.
Definition Of Cognitive Reframing
Cognitive reframing is a process we go through to create a cognitive shift. When we're confronted with a situation, it may look grim and impossible to deal with. However, after we examine our thinking to look for cognitive distortions, we can come to a more positive and realistic view.
Positive And Negative Cognitive Reframing
Cognitive reframing is something that we do naturally. Here's an example of negative cognitive reframing:
Suppose that someone gives you a brand new tablet. They tell you that they bought it for you because they knew you wanted one. The tablet seems to work well, and you feel happy and grateful to have such a good friend. Then, you start thinking about how financially well-off your friend is and how you're struggling to make ends meet. Suddenly, you change the way that you think of the gift. Instead of a generous gift and a sign of friendship, you begin to think of the gift as a charity case, or view it with bitterness because they could afford to buy it while you could not. This makes you angry, and you may begin avoiding your friend or holding resentment toward them. You have just reframed a good experience into a negative light.
Positive cognitive reframing is the reverse process:
Say, for example, that you see your wife in a men's clothing store. You always buy your clothes, so you're suspicious right away. Why is she here? She looks up at you and then hurries away. You feel ignored and disrespected because you think that she is trying to hide something from you. You don't want to think bad things about your wife. So, you decide to give her the benefit of the doubt. You ask yourself if you're jumping to a negative conclusion. Then, you remember that your anniversary is coming up later in the week, which means she's probably buying you a gift. Now, you begin to feel happy with her. You leave the store to get her a gift. Now, you've reframed what at first seemed like a negative situation into a more positive and realistic one.
Cognitive Reframing Vs Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive reframing is something we do naturally and often unconsciously. Cognitive restructuring is the same process, but it's done systematically and deliberately. When a psychologist guides you through this process, it's called cognitive restructuring.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that are unhelpful or irrational. If you're naturally doing cognitive reframing on your own, you may or may not realize where your thinking has gone wrong. However, in cognitive behavioral therapy, your therapist helps you learn about cognitive distortions and identify specific distortion patterns in your thinking.
The list of cognitive distortions that we practice is incredibly long. It sometimes seems that we would rather do anything but look at our world through a foggy lens. You can correct any of these distortions, however. Here are some of the most common cognitive distortions and how a counselor might help you reframe them.
All-or-nothing thinking is just what it sounds like. We do it when we think someone, something, or some situation can only be either all good or all bad, all true or all untrue, or in any other ultimatum. Few things or people can be realistically seen in this way. Anything with any complexity at all is almost sure to have different attributes, with some you will like and some you will dislike. A counselor might ask you to consider if there's anything you notice about the thing, person, or situation that is partly different than what you've indicated.
In Scientific American, Piercarlo Valdesolo defines magical thinking this way:
"'Magical thinking' (as it has been called) is defined as the belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome."
Valdesolo goes on to talk about the fact that stepping on a crack has nothing to do with breaking your mother's back whatsoever. The article focuses on an experiment that shows how doing something we consider lucky can help us perform better.
However, we often engage in magical thinking about subjects that have nothing to do with our performance. This cognitive distortion can cause us to make critical errors in our behavior. Consider the person who thinks a specific lottery outlet is lucky. In fact, they're so sure they're going to win if they buy a ticket at that location that they pour hundreds of dollars into the venture. Meanwhile, hundreds of other people are buying their lottery tickets there. Realistically, some will win, and even more will lose, no matter where they buy their tickets.
This is magical thinking. A counselor can help you find any instances of this magical thinking as you discuss your situation. Then, they can guide you in considering if luck or other superstitious beliefs can help you or hurt you. They can help you do some cognitive reframing so that you can look at the situation more realistically.
Here are some over-generalizations you might have thought or said:
- It happened once, so it will happen again.
- That person will act like all the other people like them (ex: “All men are terrible.”)
- I blew that interview, so I'll blow the next one.
- The last time I went out in the cold, I got sick. I can't go out in the cold, or I'll get sick again.
- That person didn't ask me on a second date. No one ever will. No one will ever love me.
The list could go on and on. The main thing to remember about overgeneralization is that it's rarely, if ever, accurate. A counselor can help you see where you're using this cognitive distortion and use any of a variety of techniques to help you form a more accurate perspective.
Magnifying and minimizing are two opposite distortions. When we magnify things, we make them bigger than they really are. When we minimize, we see things as insignificant when they may be important. Correcting these distortions can be difficult on your own because you don't want to flip them over to the opposite distortion instead. What you need is to find the true impact of something rather than immediately labeling it as important or insignificant.
In emotional reasoning, you base your conclusions on the way you feel rather than on valid evidence. For example, think about what it would be like to give birth for the first time. Most women would feel somewhat apprehensive. Suppose you were on your way to the hospital and nearly got into a wreck. Now, you're feeling even more on edge. Based on your anxious emotions, you start thinking that something is going to go wrong with the birth. You might think that you wouldn't be afraid if you weren't absolutely convinced that something bad was about to happen.
This is emotional reasoning. It's probably too late to correct this distortion before you give birth due to the high-stress nature of the situation, but your counselor can help you identify that instance of emotional thinking and learn how to avoid it in the future.
Personalizing means making something that's abstract or not about you into something that's directed at you. You can also personalize when you get into an argument. If you run out of evidence to support your view, you might start attacking the person making the statement you disagree with. However, you can significantly benefit from keeping personalization out of the argument. Your counselor might challenge the thoughts that led you to personalize in the first place, helping you see the real issues at play.
Negative and positive predictions can keep us from doing what we need to do. If we're typically pessimistic, we may assume that things are going to go badly for us most of the time. If we're usually optimistic, we assume the opposite. However, no one knows the future completely. Even what we can reasonably expect in the future may not turn out the way we thought it would. Some negative or positive predictions are based on facts. But too often, we get into a habit of making the same type of prediction, either negative or positive, not based on facts but rather our assumptions. A counselor can help you identify it, think it through, and decide whether it's realistic or not.
Catastrophizing is a specific type of overgeneralization. When something happens that we don't like, we catastrophize it if we believe it's worse than it is. We may also make negative predictions about the impact that this insignificant factor is going to have on our lives. Catastrophizing can lead you to feel overwhelmed by something that doesn't matter in the big picture. When you're catastrophizing, you can become very upset and even hopeless. It's crucial to get a handle on the true significance, or lack thereof, that an event holds for you.
Negatively/Positively Biased Recall
Somehow, it seems easier for humans to remember past events in a positive light than to see them realistically. Sometimes, however, we take the opposite viewpoint and remember things in a negative light, especially if our experience is different in the present. It's helpful to be able to look at the past in the most realistic way possible, especially if you are using past experiences as a basis for a current decision. A therapist can help you examine and evaluate the specific thoughts behind your prediction and help you form a more realistic view.
Why Psychologists Use Cognitive Reframing
Why would psychologists spend your, and their own, time working with a process that you can do yourself? The truth is that, although we do cognitive reframing quite naturally, we don't always do it in helpful ways. By deliberately restructuring our thinking, a psychologist can put this natural process to better purposes than most of us do without realizing it. Here are some reasons why psychologists will use this strategy in the therapeutic process.
Cognitive restructuring focuses on creating positive outcomes. When we do cognitive reframing, we quite often have different agendas. We may use it to rationalize our feelings and behaviors, bolster our egos, overprotect ourselves, or create an excuse for not trying to improve our situation. A psychologist can use cognitive restructuring to help you choose the thoughts that will benefit you most.
Helps You Be More Realistic
It's great to be positive, but being overoptimistic can lead us to risky behavior, financial ruin, or other negative outcomes. When a psychologist helps you reframe your circumstances more realistically, you gain a better understanding of the true situation and what you need to consider as you decide how to cope with it.
Gives You A New Life Skill
One of the most wonderful benefits of cognitive restructuring is that you can learn to do it on your own. As your psychologist takes you through the process of consciously reframing your thoughts, you learn a new skill that can help you now and throughout the rest of your life.
How To Change Your Perception
While therapy can go a long way in helping you learn how to shift your thinking, there are many exercises that you can try on your own to work on developing and maintaining a more positive mindset. Here are a few tips and ideas to get you started:
- Learn More About Where Your Negative Thoughts Lie
Negative thought patterns change the way that we think about ourselves and leave us open to mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Because they are so powerful, it is important to identify where these negative thoughts lie. For some, negative thoughts may be abundant in one area of their life but entirely absent in others. Other individuals may feel overwhelmingly negative everywhere. The first step to changing your thinking is identifying where your thoughts are directly impacting your life.
- Make An Effort To Increase Awareness And Decrease Volume
Awareness is the key to change. When you become aware of something, you are able to take action to change it. Now that you are aware that you are dealing with negative thought patterns, you can begin to catch them and stop them in their tracks before they can cause any further damage. Become more aware of what you think when you think about it. If you see any thought that is negative, try to stop thinking about it immediately.
- Replace Your Negative Thoughts With Positive Ones
Once you've stopped one thought, you are going to need to replace it with something that can stop the cycle. After all, stopping the thought may be helpful, but it can't change the underlying issue. Take the initial negative thoughts and transform them into something encouraging and believable. While you may not feel different now, you will as this cycle begins to shift.
- Get The Help Of A Professional
If you'd like to learn more about the cognitive structure or you're ready to start changing the way you think and feel, consider talking to a counselor at BetterHelp.com. You can choose one of the thousands of counselors who work through BetterHelp and offer cognitive-behavioral counseling as well as other types of therapy. As you examine and change your thoughts, you can learn to find positive meaning in every situation.
Online therapy, specifically online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), has been found to be particularly useful in exploring and treating conditions that directly impact our cognitive reframing, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, social anxiety, phobias, and many others. The study found that online therapy is especially useful to those living in rural areas with limited access to mental healthcare.
Even better, getting help online means not having to compromise when it comes to your life. Skip the lengthy process of trying to find a counselor in your area and fit them into your schedule by jumping online today. BetterHelp’s short questionnaire matches you with licensed therapists that you can immediately chat with to determine if they’re a good fit. Additionally, sessions, including those for cognitive reframing, can be conducted anytime and anywhere there is an internet connection. If this is an issue, sessions can easily be conducted via phone and texting, as well!
If you want to get a better feel for what you can expect when you use BetterHelp, take a look at some of the reviews below, from people looking to change their thinking patterns in healthy and positive ways.
"I worked with another counselor for over 6 months before working with Arielle Ballard. In one 30 minute session, I got more accomplished in terms of structuring goals, building coping mechanisms, and recognizing thought patterns, than I had in the 6 months working with the other counselor. I'm pleased with my progress and am very grateful to Arielle."
"I came to Gary through BetterHelp in a time of crisis in my life, experiencing issues and problems I had never faced before. He listened to my story and understood what I was going through. With the advice he provided, he shed light on my situation, and I felt a new lease of life, like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I saw everything in a new light, from a new and better perspective, and now I'm on a new path away from my troubles. I haven't looked back, and that's all down to the help Gary provided me. I couldn't recommend him more if you're going through a tough moment in your life, thank you."
While we can't necessarily change the things that come into our lives, we can change the way we look at these things and react to them. With the right tools, shifting your thought patterns and behaviors is possible. You don't have to let negative thoughts hold you back -- take the first step today.
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