Reducing Stress by Changing the Way You Think

smileyTurn negative into positive.

Cognitive Restructuring is a useful tool for understanding what lies behind stressful and unhappy feelings and moods, and for reframing the unnecessary negative thinking that we can all engage in from time to time. Particularly when used with positive thinking, Cognitive Restructuring can help us turn these moods around, so that we can approach situations in a positive frame of mind.

This is obviously important, because not only are negative moods unpleasant, they can also reduce the quality of our performance, and undermine our relationships with other people.

The key idea behind Cognitive Restructuring is that our moods are driven by what we tell ourselves, based on our interpretation of things that are going on around us. Cognitive Restructuring is a useful way of evaluating how rational and valid these interpretations are. Where we find that we’re being unnecessarily negative in the way that we’re looking at things, then this naturally changes the way we think about situations, thereby changing our moods.

Cognitive Restructuring is particularly helpful where issues are more difficult, and where they warrant more careful, considered examination.

Use the Cognitive Restructuring tool when you realise that you’re in an unhappy mood, and you want to get rid of it.

How to Use the Tool

Follow these steps to use Cognitive Restructuring when you are in an unhappy mood:

  1. Write down the situation that triggered the negative mood.
  2. Write down the mood or moods that you felt in the situation. Here, moods are the deep feelings that we have about the situation, but they’re not thoughts about it. “Mind over Mood” suggests an easy trick for telling moods from thoughts: You can usually describe moods in one word, while thoughts are more complex. For example, “he is trashing my suggestion in front of my co-workers,” would be a thought, while the associated moods might be “humiliated”, “frustrated”, “angry” or “insecure”.
  3. Write down the “automatic thoughts” that you experienced when you felt the mood. These are your natural reactions to this situation. In the example above, thoughts might be:
    • Maybe my analysis skills aren’t good enough…
    • Have I failed to consider these things?
    • He hasn’t liked me since…
    • How rude and arrogant of him!
    • Everyone will think badly of me.
    • But my argument is good and sound.
    • This is undermining my future with this company.

In this example, the most distressing thoughts (“hot thoughts”) may be “Maybe my analysis skills aren’t good enough,” and “Everyone will think badly of me”.

  1. Identify the objective evidence that supports these hot thoughts. The evidence written down for our example might have been:
    • The meeting moved on and decisions were taken with no account being taken of my suggestion.
    • He did identify a flaw in one of the arguments in my paper.
  2. Identify the evidence that does not support the hot thoughts. Evidence contradicting the hot thought in the example might be:
    • The flaw was minor and did not alter the conclusions.
    • The analysis was objectively sound, and the suggestion was realistic and well founded.
    • When I trained in the analysis method, I usually came close to the top of my class.
    • My clients respect my analysis and my opinion.
  3. Identify fair, balanced thoughts about the situation. By this stage, you will have looked at both sides of the situation as far as you can. This should have clarified the situation. You may now have all the information you need to take a fair, balanced view of what happened.
  4. Alternatively, you may find that there are still substantial points of uncertainty. If this is the case, then you may need to explore this, perhaps by discussing the situation with other people or by testing the question in some other way. Obviously, the amount of effort you put in does depend on the importance of the situation.
  5. Do what is needed to come to a balanced view and write the balanced thoughts down. The balanced thoughts in this example might now be:
    • I am good at this sort of analysis. Other people respect my abilities.
    • My analysis was reasonable, but not perfect.
    • There was an error; however it did not affect the validity of the conclusions.
    • The way he handled the situation was not correct.
    • People were surprised and a little shocked by the way he handled my suggestion (this comment would have followed an informal poll of other people at the meeting).
  1. Finally, observe your mood now and think about what you are going to do: You should now have a clearer view of the situation.
  2. Firstly, look at your mood now. You will probably find that it has changed and (hopefully!) improved. Write it down.
  3. The next step is to think about what you could do about the situation. You may conclude that no action is appropriate. By looking at the situation in a balanced way, it may cease to be important.
  4. Alternatively, you may choose to do something about the situation.
  5. Finally, create some positive affirmations that you can use to counter any future automatic negative thoughts, and see if you can spot any opportunities coming out of the situation.
  6. Concluding on the example above, we look at these points:
    • Mood: Instead of feeling humiliation, frustration, anger or insecurity, the person in our example is most likely to feel only mild anger.
    • Actions: A first action will be to use labelling to calm this anger. Having done this, this person may want to arrange a meeting to discuss the situation in an assertive manner.
    • Positive Thoughts: he or she may also create and use the following positive affirmation in a similar situation: “My opinions are sound and are respected by fair-minded colleagues and clients. I will rise above rudeness.

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