What is Cognitive Restructuring?

Cognitive Restructuring is a Core Part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Negative thoughts have a strong influence on social anxiety.
Learn to challenge your negative thoughts to overcome social anxiety. Brand New Images / Getty Images

Cognitive restructuring is an essential part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT, an intensive form of therapy that requires significant effort on the part of the patient with assistance from a therapist, is considered to be one of the most effective treatment options for mental disorders like social anxiety disorder.

What is Cognitive Restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring is a CBT technique that involves identifying and disputing irrational thoughts and negative automatic thoughts.

Cognitive restructuring draws on several different methods such as thought recording, disputation and guided questioning. The ultimate goal of cognitive restructuring is to replace anxiety-inducing thoughts with more rational and positive ones to reduce anxiety. 

The theory behind cognitive restructuring is that negative thoughts can be reformulated through practice. This process involves testing ideas for their accuracy and questioning if they are reality or just your own flawed perception. 

What Does Cognitive Restructuring Entail?

Cognitive restructuring is an intensive process. While some people opt to do it alone, it is usually recommended that you work with a therapist who specializes in both social anxiety and cognitive behavioral therapy; if done incorrectly it can actually cause harm, so professional assistance is important. 

There are several steps to cognitive restructuring:

  1. Record: Record your thoughts in a journal, including all negative thoughts you have about yourself or self-limiting ideas. Also, note the situation at hand: was it a large party with people you didn't know? Or was it a public presentation in front of coworkers? Write down the implications of how you felt. If you were convinced you were going to fail, did that make you more nervous or did you refuse to attend the event?
  1. Analyze: With the help of your therapist, review the notes you have written to determine if certain patterns exist. You may find that you are okay at work settings, but get anxious at parties where you don't know anyone. You may find that public speaking is what scares you, but not mingling with strangers. Analyzing these triggers can help you and your therapist create a strategy to combat your unique form of social anxiety. 
  1. Dispute: Review the thoughts about yourself and critique them for accuracy. If you wrote down "I always fail at everything," think about times when you did succeed in your social or professional life. Once you've identified a few examples, you have successfully disproved that idea you wrote down.
  2. Replace: Replace those disproven negative thoughts with accurate and positive affirmations. Instead of "I always screw up," replace that thought with "I'm a very strong researcher" or "I'm a great listener."

Research on Cognitive Restructuring and Social Anxiety Disorder

The results of a 2016 study suggested that cognitive restructuring may positively impact social anxiety in the short-term not due to changes in the perceived accuracy of negative thoughts, but rather simply due to exposure to a feared situation.

However, a 2014 study showed that post-event processing (PEP; the rumination in which you engage experience after a social situation) was reduced after cognitive restructuring compared to a control strategy.

Therefore, it seems that the actual mechanism through which cognitive restructuring has its effect on social anxiety is still up for debate.

Closing Thoughts

Cognitive restructuring is not an easy skill to learn, even with the help of a healthcare provider. Particularly if you have social anxiety, you likely have spent years thinking negatively about yourself, worsening your anxiety and nervousness. 

However, cognitive restructuring does get easier with practice. Continue working on it for your different fears with the help of your therapist or doctor. Over time, cognitive restructuring and cognitive behavioral therapy can have a significant impact on your social anxiety.

Sources:

Barrera TL, Szafranski DD, Ratcliff CG, Garnaat SL, Norton PJ. An Experimental Comparison of Techniques: Cognitive Defusion, Cognitive Restructuring, and in-vivo Exposure for Social Anxiety. Behav Cogn Psychother. 2016;44(2):249-254. doi:10.1017/S1352465814000630.

Mills, H., Reiss, N., Dombeck, M. "Cognitive Restructuring". Mental Help, 2008. 

Shikatani B, Antony MM, Kuo JR, Cassin SE. The Impact of Cognitive Restructuring and Mindfulness Strategies on Postevent Processing and Affect in Social Anxiety Disorder. J Anxiety Disord. 2014;28(6):570-579. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.05.012.

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