What Is Cognitive Reframing And How Does It Work?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated January 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Thanks to our upbringing, cultural conditioning, societal influences, and other factors, we all make sense of our lives, environments, and relationships through a certain, specific lens. Whether we’re aware of them or not, these mental frameworks can impact how we interpret things—for better or for worse. When we or a mental health professional notices that some of our mental frameworks may be causing us distress, cognitive reframing can help us shift them.

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What Is Cognitive Reframing?

Though many don’t realize it, our thoughts often follow certain patterns that help us interpret the world around us. Because these mental frameworks are the lens through which we see virtually everything, it’s easy to understand how they can have a large impact. If these patterns are warped or based on false conclusions or beliefs, we might experience maladaptive feelings and behaviors like increased stress and symptoms of mental health disorders like anxiety or depression. 

That’s where cognitive reframing comes in. It’s the process of shifting your perspective by replacing negative or flawed thought patterns with more positive and realistic ones, which can help improve your mood and mental health.

The first step in this process is becoming aware of your automatic thoughts and thinking patterns. Then, once you’re able to recognize them as they arise, you can start questioning whether they’re rational or helpful, and change them if not.

Getting Familiar With Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that are often flawed or irrational and are usually damaging or unhelpful. There are over a dozen common cognitive distortions that people may experience, which can be the cause of negative emotions and behaviors. While anyone can experience cognitive distortions, they are especially correlated with some mental health conditions like depression. 

Learning to recognize and name these distortions when they come up is the first step toward shifting them toward something more helpful through the practice of cognitive reframing. Here are a few of the most common ones.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking

We engage in all-or-nothing thinking when we imagine that there are only two possible outcomes of a situation: incredible or terrible. In reality, few situations in life are all bad or all good or represent complete success or total failure. There’s typically a lot of nuance in between the two ends of the spectrum, which we can miss out on when employing this cognitive distortion. An example of this distortion would be a student getting a lower grade than they expected on one test and seeing their complete academic career as a failure. 

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization happens when we take information from one situation and apply it to all similar situations in the future, assuming they’ll go the same way. It can lead us to close ourselves off to new opportunities because we’ve already decided that they’ll go poorly. An example of this distortion would be a person whose first date didn’t go well assuming that they’re bad at dating, or that there are no good people out there, or that they’ll never find a partner because they're destined to be alone forever.

Mind-Reading

Mind-reading involves making assumptions about what someone else is thinking—usually negative ones—especially with little or no evidence. It’s a pattern that makes us interpret even the smallest signals or cues as something negative toward us. An example of this distortion would be someone feeling like the person they’re at lunch with is bored and wants to leave because they aren’t talking much, when really they could simply be trying to be a good listener, tired from work, or any number of other things. 

Mental Filtering

This distortion is all about what you notice most or fixate on in a situation. When engaging in negative mental filtering, you might focus on only the bad elements of something and completely disregard the good. This distortion can be unhelpful or even harmful because it gives you a lopsided, unrealistic view of how things really are. An example of this distortion would be forgetting about a work deadline and then telling yourself you’re bad at your job, you’re a mess, and you always do this. In reality, this train of thought means you’re ignoring all the deadlines that you did remember and meet in the past without any trouble, and all the times at work you’ve been praised by your boss and colleagues. 

How To Practice Cognitive Reframing

You can start working on cognitive reframing on your own, though a mental health professional can provide valuable guidance and support in this process. Studies on “self-directed CBT” have found that those who practice it can experience moderate improvement in their symptoms and overall mental health. It may be a good starting point if you want to learn about the techniques before meeting with a therapist. 

To get started, you can become familiar with the key cognitive distortions and how they may manifest. It’s often an important step in learning to recognize when they’re occurring in you. Next, cultivating a mindfulness practice can help you start noticing your thoughts more in general—positive and negative. If you’re not aware of them, it’s essentially impossible to adjust them. Keeping a thought journal can also help you practice noticing when these distortions arise, questioning their validity, and taking steps to reframe them if you deem them to be untrue or unhelpful. It can also help you track which ones are the most pervasive in your mindset so you know what to focus most on.

Want To Know How Your Thoughts Can Affect Your Mental Health?

Getting Help With Cognitive Reframing

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular is a method of talk therapy that has been proven to be effective in addressing a wide range of mental health disorders. It’s especially helpful for those that can arise from or be intensified by negative thought patterns like cognitive distortions. It’s predicated on identifying unhelpful thought patterns that cause unhelpful feelings or behaviors—in other words, it relies on cognitive reframing as a key tenet. Plus, research suggests that this therapeutic style is also effective when administered virtually. If you’re interested in trying out online therapy, you can get matched with a licensed mental health professional through a platform like BetterHelp. You can meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address any of the challenges you may be facing. They can help you learn to notice your thoughts, identify distortions or flaws, and practice reframing for better emotional and behavioral outcomes. You can find client reviews of BetterHelp therapists below.

Counselor Reviews

"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."

Takeaway

Cognitive reframing is a powerful technique that can change the way you see yourself and the world. You can learn the basic tenets and start practicing yourself, or you can seek out a mental health professional who can guide and support you through the process.

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