What is cognitive restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring is a way of working with the way we perceive, interpret and think about the world. Cognitive restructuring is a technique used in both cognitive therapy and cognitive behavioral psychology, and can help you identify thoughts and thought patterns that have a negative effect on you. Once you are aware of them, you can begin restructuring those thoughts and thought patterns, and replace them with new ones that are more beneficial to you, and your well-being. And by changing the way you think and interpret the world, you are also indirectly influencing the way you feel and behave.

Exercise 1
Time: 15 min.

Thoughts as hypotheses
When you start working on cognitive restructuring, the very first step is to start thinking of your thoughts as hypotheses. They can not be considered 100% true, and it is therefore possible to investigate and challenge them. You can therefore work on changing your thoughts by gathering evidence for and against the thought, to see if you can verify it – or if there is another more constructive way that you could be thinking instead.

  • Start out by identifying a thought that you would like to work on. Feel free to write it down so that you have it precisely worded.
  • Think about how convinced you are that the thought is true. Give it a score of between 0-10, where 0 is not convinced at all, and 10 is fully convinced.
  • When you start working with the thought, you start questioning it. Try to be as objective as possible, and feel free to take notes along the way. You can use these questions as a starting point:What evidence do you have, that the thought is true?
    What evidence do you have, that it is false?
    Are there other alternative explanations/ways of thinking?
  • Finally, you can return to the score you gave your thought in the start of this exercise, and give it a new score for how convinced you are that it is true now, after you have tried questioning it. What often happens is that the number decreases – you become less convinced that the thought is 100% true. But if that does not happen, that is also all right. It might take some time and practice.

Automatic negative thoughts

Automatic negative thoughts is another concept that stems from cognitive therapy and cognitive behavioural psychology. Automatic negative thoughts are thoughts that occur automatically, as a reaction to a situation. The thoughts stem from our basic beliefs about ourselves and the world.
As an example, if you have a basic belief that you cannot speak in front of a large audience without experiencing anxiety, it may mean that when you encounter a situation like that, you automatically start thinking ‘I can’t do it’, ‘I’ll get a panic attack’,’ it always goes wrong’ or ‘I have to get away’. Once these thoughts start swarming around inside your head, it sets off an emotional and physical reaction. Often this means that the thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since negative automatic thoughts arise on the basis of your own beliefs in the context of a given situation, they will typically also not correlate with how other people experience the situation. It can be easy to conclude that everyone else thinks the same negative thoughts about you as you do. But others rarely judge you as critically as you do yourself.
One way to work with negative automatic thoughts is the 5 column chart. It is used both to become aware of exactly what thoughts and feelings a given situation triggered in you, but also to formulate responses and alternatives to the thoughts. It can help you make it harder for the negative thoughts to be automatic.

Exercise 2
Time: 20 min.

5 column scheme
Start by finding a place where you can sit quietly while doing the exercise. Start by drawing a 5 column chart as it appears below, or print the chart from this exercise PDF so you can fill it out. The columns should be; Situation, Thoughts, Emotions, New Thoughts and Results.

  • Start by thinking of a situation where you were very emotionally affected and that you would like to work on. This is the activating og triggering event. An example could be that you have an appointment with a good friend who does not show up. Write it in the first column.
  • Next, try to figure out what thoughts the situation brought up. In this situation, a possible thought could be ‘something must have happened to them along the way’. Write the thought in column No. 2. If you can remember several thoughts, then you can also write them down. But start with the thought that affected you the most, and work on that one first. You can always work with the others later.
  • In the next column you can write what feelings you had in the situation. In this example situation, you may have started getting worried, or afraid that something had happened to your friend. It may also be that you began to imagine all sorts of scenarios that made you even more anxious and worried.
  • In column 4, you start working on reformulating your thought, and making responses to the original thought. When working on creating new alternative thoughts, you use the following questions:

What evidence is there that the thought is true?
What evidence is there that it is (or could be) false?
Are there other alternative explanations?
What is the worst thing that could happen? And what is actually the most likely?
What is the consequence of believing this thought/way of thinking?
What could happen if I change my mindset?
If my friend/family member/partner was in the same situation and had the same thought, what would I say to them?

  • In the final column you can write the result or consequences of your work. For example, it may be that you believe less in the thought that you were working on. It could also be that you have decided to test the thought and see what happens if, for example, you contact your friend, and ask them about why they missed your appointment. Or maybe the emotions that the situation triggered have become less intense.


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