We all experience negative thoughts. We’re human. But some experience intense anxiety with recurring thoughts that make it overwhelming to manage daily tasks. If this sounds like you and you have anxiety, help is available. In this article, we’ll explore a few cognitive restructuring exercises for anxiety to help you identify and let go of racing thoughts. With practice, you’ll feel happier and more at peace with your mind.
What Is Cognitive Restructuring?
Imagine you’re about to give a speech to a large audience. Your palms start sweating, your heart races, then suddenly, your mind starts thinking unhelpful thoughts. “What if I fail? I’m not good enough to do this. I’m a failure. Everyone will hate me. I hate myself“. These thoughts are examples of cognitive distortions, thought patterns that make us feel bad about ourselves.
Yet cognitive restructuring is the process of identifying and untangling these unhelpful thoughts. It encourages us to understand how powerful our thoughts are in determining how we feel and act. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity to reframe our thoughts and consequently influence how we see ourselves, take action, and live our lives. You could say it positively changes our entire life and gives us back control.
What Are the Benefits of Cognitive Restructuring?
Understanding how your thoughts affect how you view yourself and the world around you provides many benefits, both emotionally and physically. Let’s explore a few.
- Increases confidence
- Decreases anxiety and depression
- Improves emotional regulation
- Reduces unhelpful thoughts and attitudes
- Lowers stress
- Reduces self-criticism
- Challenges limiting beliefs
- Increases resilience and the capacity to overcome obstacles
- Strengthens the immune system
- Lowers blood pressure
- Increases life span
- Improves cardiovascular health
How to Get Started with Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is a core process of cognitive behavior therapy, a goal-oriented therapy designed to help understand how your thoughts affect your feelings, behaviors, and experiences. Therefore, having an understanding of this therapy is the first step to getting started with cognitive restructuring. However, it can be quite difficult to untangle and recognize your own core beliefs and cognitive distortions, no matter how much research you complete.
As a result, it’s best to speak with a mental health professional to receive expert help. But if a professional is not an option at the moment, that’s okay. The guide below will walk you through each step to increasing your awareness of your internal dialogue and help you deconstruct negative thought patterns. For now, the main thing you need to begin with is a mixture of patience and an open mind.
7 Cognitive Restructuring Exercises for Anxiety
1. Increase your awareness
The first step to restructuring unhelpful thoughts is to bring your attention to them. For example, if you’re prone to catastrophic thinking, notice every time you have this thought. Maybe you’re invited to a party and worry no one will like you, or your boss asks for a meeting, and you’re worried they’ll fire you. When you notice these thoughts arise, keep a thought record or journal to explore the situations or triggers that caused them.
2. Socratic questioning
After you increase your awareness, begin restructuring. The Socratic method involves asking questions to prove your reasoning is illogical. For example, if you’re worried you’ll get fired, ask;
- Is this thought realistic?
- Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?
- Do I often think this way?
- Why do I believe this?
Spend a few minutes analyzing each question to help you uncover different perspectives.
3. Gather evidence
Now, identify and gather the evidence that supports your thought. For example, “I didn’t meet a deadline”, or “I gave a suggestion in the meeting, and my boss was silent”. With this tip, objectively look at the evidence and think of comments or events that triggered your “fear of getting fired” thought. Next, identify evidence that debunks your negative thought. For example, “I always submit my work on time”, or “My boss often praises my innovative ideas“. As you see, the thoughts that contradict are more fair and reasonable.
4. Explore emotional reasoning
One of the most helpful cognitive restructuring exercises for anxiety is emotional reasoning. This condition says if you feel it, your thoughts must be true. For example, if you feel worried about getting fired, emotional reasoning will cause you to believe you will. However, it’s important to separate realistic and unrealistic thoughts, no matter how strongly you feel. Your thoughts aren’t always true, and understanding this will help you. Also, if there is no evidence that you’ll get fired, it further proves that your emotions and thoughts are not always entirely accurate.
5. Test your thought
Through the previous steps, you may have discovered a potential core belief. In sticking to the work example, a belief might be “I can’t do anything right. I’m worthless“. If you believe this, try behaviorally testing your thought. For example, ask your boss for feedback about your performance. Or ask a friend or colleague about your work. Do they think the same about you? Chances are, they don’t. Investigating these thoughts rather than believing them gives you the opportunity to debunk them.
While self-compassion isn’t exactly a tool for cognitive restructuring, it does help improve your self-perception and thoughts. For example, if you feel you’re worthless and fear getting fired, take a step back. Perhaps you didn’t meet a deadline, but everyone makes mistakes. You’re human, and you give your very best to your work. Therefore, acknowledge you’re having a cognitive distortion, take a few deep breaths, and focus on the best-case scenario. Maybe you’ll receive a raise!
7. Speak with a therapist
While you can practice cognitive restructuring on your own, it’s very important to speak with a mental health professional if your thoughts or anxiety negatively impact your overall functioning. For example, if your anxiety affects your relationships, both personally and professionally, impacts your sleep and ability to care for yourself, contact help. A professional will create a long-term plan to reduce your symptoms and improve your wellbeing.
Our thoughts are powerful, but so are we. With practice and patience, you can learn to identify unhelpful patterns and change how they impact your life. Therefore, use these cognitive restructuring exercises for anxiety on your journey to becoming unchained from thoughts that no longer serve you. You deserve the very best – and one day, your thoughts will support this belief.
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