Cognitive restructuring is a useful technique for understanding unhappy feelings and moods, and for challenging the sometimes-wrong “automatic beliefs” that can lie behind them. As such, you can use it to reframe the unnecessary negative thinking that we all experience from time to time.

Bad moods are unpleasant, they can reduce the quality of your performance, and they undermine your relationships with others. Cognitive restructuring helps you to change the negative or distorted thinking that often lies behind these moods. As such, it helps you approach situations in a more positive frame of mind.

How to Use Cognitive Restructuring
Follow the steps below to use the cognitive restructuring technique.

Step 1: Calm Yourself
If you’re still upset or stressed by the thoughts you want to explore, you may find it hard to concentrate on using the tool. Use deep breathing or meditation to calm yourself down if you feel particularly stressed or upset.

Step 2: Identify the Situation
Start by describing the situation that triggered your negative mood.

Step 3: Analyse Your Mood
Next, write down the mood, or moods, that you felt during the situation.

Here, moods are the fundamental feelings that we have, but they are not thoughts about the situation.

For example, “He trashed my suggestion in front of my co-workers” would be a thought, while the associated moods might be humiliation, frustration, anger or insecurity.

Step 4: Identify Automatic Thoughts
Now, write down the natural reactions, or “automatic thoughts,” you experienced when you felt the mood.

In the example above, your thoughts might be:

“Maybe my analysis skills aren’t good enough.”
“Have I failed to consider these things?”
“He hasn’t liked me since…”
“He’s so rude and arrogant!”
“No one likes me.”
“But my argument is sound.”
“This undermines my future with this company.”

In this example, the most distressing thoughts (the “hot thoughts”) are likely to be “Maybe my analysis skills aren’t good enough,” and, “No one likes me.”

Step 5: Find Objective Supportive Evidence
Identify the evidence that objectively supports your automatic thoughts. In our example, you might write the following:

“The meeting moved on and decisions were made, but my suggestion was ignored.”
“He identified a flaw in one of my arguments.”

Your goal is to look objectively at what happened, and then to write down specific events or comments that led to your automatic thoughts.

Step 6: Find Objective Contradictory Evidence
Next, identify and write down evidence that contradicts the automatic thought. In our example, this might be:

“The flaw was minor and did not alter the conclusions.”
“The analysis was objectively sound, and my suggestion was realistic and well-founded.”
“I was top of my class when I trained in the analysis method.”
“My clients respect my analysis, and my opinion.”

As you can see, these statements are fairer and more rational than the reactive thoughts.

Step 7: Identify Fair and Balanced Thoughts
By this stage, you’ve looked at both sides of the situation. You should now have the information you need to take a fair, balanced view of what happened.

If you still feel uncertain, discuss the situation with other people, or test the question in some other way.

When you come to a balanced view, write these thoughts down. The balanced thoughts in this example might now include:

“I am good at this sort of analysis. Other people respect my abilities.”
“My analysis was reasonable, but not perfect.”
“There was an error, but it didn’t affect the validity of the conclusions.”
“The way he handled the situation was not appropriate.”

Step 8: Monitor Your Present Mood

You should now have a clearer view of the situation, and you’re likely to find that your mood has improved. Write down how you feel.

Next, reflect on what you could do about the situation. (By taking a balanced view, the situation may cease to be important, and you might decide that you don’t need to take action.)

Key Points
Cognitive restructuring is useful for understanding what lies behind negative moods. These may undermine our performance or damage our relationships with other people.

To use cognitive restructuring, work through the following process:

Calm yourself.
Write down the situation that triggered the negative thoughts.
Identify the moods that you felt in the situation.
Write down the automatic thoughts you experienced when you felt the mood. The most significant of these are your “hot thoughts.”
Identify the evidence that supports these hot thoughts.
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.

Go through this process when you experience a negative mood, or when you feel fear, apprehension, or anxiety about a person or event.