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Applying Learning Principles to Thought: Cognitive Restructuring

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Cognitive Restructuring (sometimes known as "reframing") is essentially the core technique from cognitive behavioral therapy, a highly regarded, scientifically validated psychotherapy format. The technique is designed to help you alter your habitual appraisal habits so that they can become less biased in nature and you less moody. You alter your appraisal habits by becoming aware of them as they occur, and then criticizing and critiquing them. Usually there is no logical or rational basis for your appraisal bias. When you really examine your judgments carefully, looking for evidence to support them, you find that there is none. You are then in a position to form a new, more accurate appraisal.

Appraisal habits cannot be manipulated directly, but the thoughts that carry them can be. The first task in cognitive restructuring is thus self-monitoring; learning to become more aware of your thought behaviors. Habitual appraisal habits are not conscious things, and neither are the thoughts that carry them. In addition to the thoughts you are conscious of having, there are also all manner of unconscious automatic thoughts which flit through your mind without you noticing. Automatic thoughts are not inherently unconscious; they are just so common that you've habituated to them and no longer notice them.

You become more conscious of your automatic thoughts by self-monitoring. We don't want to count thoughts, however, so much as we want to record them. A good way to do this is to write down all the thoughts that occur to you shortly after some event has occurred that causes you to feel bad.

Automatic thoughts are often situation specific instances of more core fixed beliefs about yourself and the world. While automatic thoughts reflects your reaction to a given event, core beliefs describes your general expectations and identity. For example, if you have recently done poorly on a test, your automatic thought will probably reflect your situation, "I'm so embarrassed! I should have done better!" , while your core belief might reflect a deeper fear: "I'm a stupid person!" Core beliefs influence appraisals, and thus are a major source of bias. They are not always obvious or conscious. The way to identify them is to examine multiple instances of your automatic thoughts over time for the repetitive themes that underlie them. You will likely be able to distill some of your core beliefs by examining your self-monitoring thought records, and by asking yourself the question, "Why am I reacting this way?".

Writing down your automatic thoughts and core beliefs makes it easier for you to get a handle on them; to view them from an outsider's perspective rather than your own. When you actually get to look at what you are thinking and believing, you may find that your thoughts and beliefs are inaccurate, incorrect or irrational, and that with a little work you can correct them so that they better reflect "reality"; the shared social consensus.

Write out your automatic thoughts and beliefs on a thought record form as pictured below, and then actually respond to each one in writing so as to correct it.

Event: "Performed Poorly on Test"
Automatic Thought Core Belief Corrected Response

I'm so embarrassed! I should do better on the test.

I'm stupid!

I did fail this test, but I have passed other tests in the past. My grades overall are okay. I'm not the smartest person around, but there are certainly people doing worse than me. This specific area is hard for me; I do better in other classes. I didn't prepare for this test very well; I could perhaps improve my grades if I studied more effectively.

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