Aug 04 2008

Cognitive restructuring (CR): The ABCDE way to change automatic negative, self-defeating beliefs into more affirming messages

Cognitive restructuring is a therapy exercise which can help you evaluate negative and perhaps irrational beliefs and turn them into more positive, life affirming messages.

This exercise can be especially helpful if you and your spouse engage in escalating conflicts where you blame each other or feel intense feelings of being unloved.
The important concept is any intense feelings we experience have their origins both in the present and in the past. Feelings from the past are stored by the brain in complicated ways, not always easily understood by us in the heat of a conflict.
For example, of one of our parents died of heart attack and our spouse developed heart problems, our past experiences with the death of our parent would influence the intensity of our current feelings.
Evaluating how much past experiences are influencing current concerns is one of the best ways to use the cognitive restructuring exercise.

Part of the creative therapy methods of the cognitive behavioral therapy model pioneered by Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and others, cognitive restructuring is a useful tool to help change unrealistic beliefs.

What are examples of irrational beliefs?

  1. I am worthless.
  2. No one loves me.
  3. I will always be unhappy.
  4. A relationship should not be such hard work.
  5. Even though I drink a lot, my partner should not complain.
  6. The best way to deal with someone who complains is to tune them out.
  7. If people were not so needy, I would be much happier.
  8. I will never get what I want.
  9. I am right and they are wrong
  10. My partner or spouse will never understand me.
  11. She hurts my feelings a lot, but doesn’t mean to do it.
  12. He drinks alcohol a lot, but he doesn’t have a drinking problem.

In Cognitive restructuring, the therapist helps the client identify and change irrational thinking or beliefs.

Usually, something happens that triggers a strong emotional response. Next, we have automatic negative thoughts or beliefs that cause emotional distress.

The challenge is to become aware enough to identify emotional triggers, automatic thoughts and create new toughts/beliefs that will help us cope more effectively.

In the cognitive therapy model, it is called the ABCDE method. Here it is:

  • A = Activating events…we first become aware of situations which lead to strong emotional reactions.
  • B = Beliefs or Automatic thoughts… repetitious thoughts/beliefs (positive or negative) we have about ourselves as a result of some activating event
  • C = Consequences of these beliefs…our response to our beliefs/automatic thoughts, including self-affirming and self-defeating behaviors
  • D = Debate or challenging…more systematic evaluation of our beliefs/automatic thoughts, including looking for scientific, observable data to confirm or refute our beliefs
  • E = Effective behavior…developing a more effective response to the activating event based on the systematic research/evaluation of our core beliefs/automatic thoughts.

So, therapeutic use of cognitive restructuring focuses more on negative or irrational beliefs.

The goal is explore and identify more complex ways to understand ourselves, challenging situations, and develop more effective ways of responding.

Let’s try a CR exercise:

Pretend that you just had an argument with a significant other.
The argument left you feeling angry, disappointed, frustrated, and resentful.

The A = Activating Event is the argument with the significant other.

Remember, activating events are situations in daily life that trigger strong feelings in us.

As a result of this activating event, you will begin to have B = Beliefs or Automatic Thoughts. You tend to have these automatic thoughts repeatedly in situations like this.

These automatic thinking process may be referred to as a circular, negative feedback loop.

It occurs over and over again, reinforcing your inability to cope and sense of hopelessness…main ingredients of depression and anxiety problems.


Some examples of negative automatic thoughts you might have include:

  1. He will never understand me.
  2. He is insensitive to my feelings.
  3. He is always like this.
  4. He is so frustrating.
  5. He is selfish.
  6. Winning an argument is more important to him than being right or wrong.
  7. He is a bully.
  8. He is irrational, I will never get through to him.
  9. He is just like his mother.
  10. I am helpless.
  11. This relationship is hopeless.

Therapeutic work in cognitive restructuring focuses on repetitive negative thoughts (automatic thoughts can also be positive).
As a result of the beliefs or automatic thoughts we experience, there is a C = Consequence. This is the “what we do…how we behave in response to these automatic thoughts.

Often what we do is called the “fight or flight” process. We either fight or run away.

Most of the clients I work with flee, avoid or do anything not to experience the stress related to whatever activating event has triggered them.
Whether it is “flight or fight”, our brain signals the adrenal glands to produce high levels of adrenaline and other stress chemicals.

This intense adrenaline rush is helpful if we have to fight or run from something threatening, but horrible if we are just having an argument with someone we care about.
If we experience higher levels of adrenaline, we likely to be less able to cope effectively with the activating event or stressful situation.

One way we can begin to cope more effectively is to D = Debate or challenge our automatic thoughts which are often based in emotion, rather than realistic data.

Here the steps include the following:

  • How accurate are my beliefs?
  • Am I distorting any data?
  • What do I really know is true?
  • What data supports my beliefs?
  • What data contradicts my beliefs?
  • How much are my beliefs assumptions I am making?
  • What can I do to clarify my thinking?
  • Who can I talk to help clarify any confusion about this?
  • What would happen if I just asked my significant other to answer some questions so I could better understand them?
  • Is there any research data or expert opinions I can explore to help me with this dilemma?

Write down your answers to these questions. Use the new data to develop a new, more realistic set of beliefs.

With a more realistic set of beliefs, you are ready to develop an E = Effective plan of action.

This is an exercise best done in writing. Writing will allow you to more fully develop your ideas, remember details, and work with the data you collect.

Using the argument example, you might develop new beliefs such as:

  1. He loves me, but gets frustrated easily.
  2. He feels criticized by me, so I have to be careful in the way I speak to him.
  3. Maybe I get too emotional when I drink wine at night, so I should cut back or not initiate serious discussions when drinking.
  4. If I listen better, maybe he will talk to me more.
  5. I need to know where my bottom line is. Yelling at him doesn’t do any good. I need to just tell him what I expect and the consequence if he does not comply. Then I need to follow through on what I say. Otherwise, he will not know I am serious.

So, the effective plan for me is to reach out to him when he is able to talk comfortably with me.

I will listen better and just be clear about what I want without criticizing him or raising my voice.

I need to make sure he knows I am serious by stating my expectation and what I will do if he does not comply.

Look next for the Cognitive Restructuring worksheet.

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