Cognitive Reframing: Part One

We’ve all had a friend or know someone who, no matter what awful thing had happened to them, embodied a positive outlook, despite it all. That negative part of our own thought patterns may have questioned their sanity, honesty, or even intelligence. Well, the joke’s on us, because whether they knew it or not, they were employing the techniques of cognitive reframing.

In this first of a two-part series, we will examine what cognitive reframing is and how our innate cognitive distortions provide a barrier to viewing certain situations in a more realistic light.

“Given the evidence that the individual’s perception of limitations, social support, and control appear to be predictors of emotional and quality-of-life outcomes, there is clearly potential to improve these outcomes without reducing impairment.”

M. Johnston, D. Bonetti, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2001

What is Cognitive Reframing?

Contrary to what we may believe, what happens to us does not inherently have meaning. It is the individual who assigns a certain interpretation whilst viewing a situation in a pre-formed frame.

Cognitive reframing is a method used to change the conditioned toxic outlook of an event and reframe it in order to alter your reaction, perception, and/or experience. It is a powerful, life-changing tool, transforming automatic responses and aiding in finding more effective solutions to possible obstacles.

When you handle events in your life with a pre-programmed response, it’s usually mired in pernicious and negative modes of thought. Sometimes, it is easier to assume the worst because it fuels the part of our brain that craves conflict. For those who have spent their lives swimming in chaos, there’s a certain comfort in dysfunction. It takes a lot more effort to see things through a more positive and nuanced lens. When you’re stewing in the toxic sludge of negative thinking, it can be extremely difficult to break the cycle.

cognitive reframe

The Power of Perception

Changing your perceptions of stressors, whether they be physical or psychological, can affect your responses. Amazingly, our body’s reaction to stress is triggered more by perception than actual events! Once the stress response is triggered, it can remain long after the actual event that caused it.  

Reframing techniques allow you to perceive your life’s stressors in a more manageable way. Its purpose is to expand the narrow framework from which you would typically view a situation, to include a broader range of possibilities. Instead of thinking about something as a “problem”, interpreting it as a “challenge” will automatically create a bedrock of solutions.

Cognitive Distortions

Irrational thought patterns called cognitive distortions run rampant if you allow them to. Your brain is very good at making connections, but occasionally it makes ones that do not foster your well-being. In these instances, it’s wise to second-guess what your brain is telling you. The oft-repeated refrain of “correlation does not equal causation” is important to note in these circumstances.

10 Common Cognitive Distortions:

In Dr. David Burns’ book “Feeling Good”, some common cognitive distortions are broken down as follows:

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: This is straightforward and something most of us have done at least once in our lives. It’s that black-and-white mode of thought that is extremely unhelpful and oftentimes harmful.

2. Overgeneralization: The assumption that because something happened once, it will always happen this way.

3. Mental Filter: No matter how many positive things happen, you will only take notice of the negative events and likely exaggerate them.

4. Disqualifying the Positive: Anything positive that happens is by chance and therefore nothing to celebrate.

5. Jumping to Conclusions: This is where you already know the conclusion you desire and will find ways to back these up regardless of evidence to the contrary.

6. Magnification and Minimization: An instance where you are magnifying the negative and minimizing the positive. Catastrophizing is a common form of this particular distortion.

7. Emotional Reasoning: Rather than looking at facts, you are using your emotions to lead the way, drawing conclusions based on these.

8. “Should” Statements: These are rules that you’ve created for yourself, they are rigid and lack the flexibility needed to navigate individual circumstances.

9. Labeling and Mislabeling: These labels for yourself and others are usually inaccurate and negative. They then contribute to your thoughts about the other person and create a one-dimensional view of them.

10. Personalization: This is a blaming technique, either toward the self or others, over things that they have no control over.  

In part 2 of this blog on cognitive reframing, we will discuss what the next steps to take are, following the acknowledgement of our cognitive distortions. With some practice, we can dramatically transform our overall mood using proven methods of cognitive reframing!