Cognitive restructuring methods: what are they and how do they work?

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in treating multiple psychological disorders and disorders.

One of the most widely used methods in this type of treatment is cognitive restructuring, the goal being to change negative thoughts and dysfunctional beliefs that cause us discomfort and emotional turmoil.

In this article, we explain what the cognitive restructuring technique is and what are the main methods used and the differences.

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Cognitive restructuring: definition and theoretical bases

Cognitive restructuring is a psychological technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy that is used to identify and correct dysfunctional thoughts. or negative. This tool allows the psychologist and the patient to work together in the search for alternatives and in the restructuring of certain nuclear ideas and beliefs which generate a subtle discomfort that is difficult to detect by oneself.

This cognitive technique manages thoughts as hypotheses that must be tested or refuted through Socratic dialogue (a dialectical method that seeks to demonstrate hypotheses by investigating and researching new ideas and concepts), asking questions, and conducting experiments. behavioral (such as asking questions of other people). , daring to act in a certain way, observe someone’s behavior, etc.) to test dysfunctional beliefs.

Cognitive restructuring is based on the following theoretical foundations:

  • The way people structure their beliefs and ideas influences how they perceive the world and themselves, how they feel (including physiological reactions) and how they act.

  • People’s cognitions can be detected through psychological methods and tools such as interview, questionnaires, the Socratic method or self-recordings.

  • Cognitions can be altered to achieve therapeutic change (modification of patient behavior).

Cognitive restructuring methods

Cognitive restructuring, as a cognitive technique it is, implicitly assumes the postulates of cognitive psychology that people respond to events according to the meaning we ascribe to them; that is, what matters is not so much what happens, but what we tell ourselves is happening (or how we assess what is happening to us).

The different cognitive restructuring methods implemented over the years assume that dysfunctional beliefs can cause affective and behavioral alterations, which is why the main goal of all is to modify these beliefs through more coherent cognitions and functional, either by addressing internal verbal behavior (what we believe about the world and ourselves) or the core beliefs that define our personality (how to believe that we deserve to be loved by all).

Next, we will look at two of the most widely used cognitive restructuring methods in cognitive behavioral therapy.

1. Ellis’ Rational Behavioral Emotional Therapy

Rational Emotional Behavioral Therapy, developed by American psychologist Albert Ellis (1913-2007), is a brief method of psychotherapy based on the premise that most affective problems and disorders (and associated behaviors) have their origin. do with what happens to us.

This therapy is based on the ABC cognitive model, Where A represents the event or event that causes us problems; B, our beliefs or interpretation of this event; and C, the emotional and behavioral consequences (including physiological reactions) that all this brings to us.

According to Ellis, we suffer from emotional problems because we tend to generate irrational ideas about certain events. For example, believing that we should depend on other people, that it is better to avoid certain responsibilities, or that certain events are catastrophic, are just a few.

Catastrophize (believing that something bad is happening to us is horrible and we can never stand it), think in absolute terms (with thoughts like “I have to pass all topics”) and generalize (if you add up on the bike) and fall , think the mountain will always fall on me), are three of the main cognitive ailments that Ellis highlights in his theory.

Essentially Ellis’ approach is to confront these irrational beliefs with more positive and realistic thoughts. First, identify the thoughts that generate discomfort and that are based on dysfunctional beliefs; second, using a brash Socratic method that serves as a counter-argument; and third, through modeling techniques (imitation learning) and homework, patients learn to modify their beliefs based on what they have learned in therapy.

2. Beck’s cognitive therapy

Another method of cognitive restructuring is included in cognitive therapy developed by American psychiatrist Aaron Beck, Which was originally intended to treat depressive disorders, although it is currently also used to treat a wide variety of psychological disorders, such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias or psychosomatic disorders.

To apply Beck’s cognitive restructuring technique, one must first identify the dysfunctional thoughts that generate emotional alterations through mental exercises and questions of the Socratic Method; second, after you identify the dysfunctional beliefs, try to counter them with methods such as testing hypotheses (with real behavioral experiences) or staging and interpreting roles or “playing a role” (being another person).

Finally, in Beck therapy, homework is a key component for patients to put into practice what has been learned in therapy.

Regarding the theoretical foundations upon which this method of cognitive restructuring is based, Beck states the following: People who suffer from emotional and behavioral disorders do so because of an excess of negative and dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs, something similar to what Ellis proposed.

Here are some examples of dysfunctional beliefs often addressed in Beck’s cognitive therapy:

  • dichotomous thinking: Believe something in the absolute, black and white, like thinking that everything is wrong when you have a mistake.

  • arbitrary inference: This dysfunctional belief (or cognitive bias) involves taking for granted or drawing general conclusions about something without having enough evidence. For example, thinking that an entire academic year is going to be suspended because you got a bad mark on an exam.

  • over-generalization: This dysfunctional idea, which we have already seen in Ellis therapy, is a cognitive distortion that leads us to draw general conclusions from one-off and anecdotal events.

  • magnification: Exaggerate or give more importance to an event.

Differences between Ellis and Beck’s approaches

Obviously, there are similarities between the two main methods of cognitive restructuring, Ellis’ approach to rational behavioral emotional therapy and Beck’s approach to cognitive therapy; however, it is nonetheless true that there are also some differences.

Both therapies assume and base their therapeutic procedures on the idea that people suffer from emotional alterations due to cognitive patterns, irrational or dysfunctional ideas and the beliefs that cause them. And both approaches attempt to modify these thoughts through cognitive and behavioral techniques.

With all, in Ellis therapy, rational debate is particularly useful in contrasting the validity of beliefs irrationalUnlike Beck’s, who more frequently uses the hypothesis testing method to contrast the veracity of dysfunctional thoughts.

Something that also differentiates the two therapies has to do with the ultimate foundation upon which each therapy is built; Ellis puts more philosophical and humanistic emphasis (he is in favor of a profound philosophical change of the person) and Beck a more scientific one, which does not prevent Ellis’ postulates from being scientifically validated as well.

Finally, there is another difference that should be noted when it comes to working with patients. Ellis’ approach seeks to modify irrational beliefs with a more aggressive and relentless questioning, while Beck’s approach is to help the patient perform tasks that test these beliefs, with a more accessible approach.

Bibliographical references:

  • Bados, A. and García, I. (2010). The technique of cognitive restructuring. Barcelona, ​​Spain: Department of Personality, Psychological Assessment and Treatment. Faculty of Psychology, University of Barcelona.

  • Martin, G., and Pear, J. (2008). Behavior modification: what it is and how to apply it. Posted by Prentice Hall. Madrid.

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