Guy w/ Jean Jacket

Practicing cognitive reframing is a great way to relieve stress and increase mental strength.

It’s easy to feel alone and misunderstood when you’re bogged down in negative thoughts. Negative thought patterns cause a lot of stress, and you might not even realize you have them if you’re already dealing with depression.

Usually, the situation isn’t as bad as it seems. Imagine taking a photo – focusing on the foreground vs. focusing on the background will result in very different images, even though you’re standing in the same place.

When a guy is depressed, it’s as if the lens he’s viewing life through has been zooming in and changing focus until it shows a very small and distorted picture of reality. Often, these changes happen slowly over several months, so it’s hard to notice that your perspective has been distorted at all. We need to remember that we can still zoom out and take a wider look at things – this is what cognitive reframing is about.

Cognitive reframing (also called ‘reframing’ or ‘cognitive restructuring’) is a powerful tool you can use to change your negative thought patterns, reduce your fight-or-flight response, decrease unnecessary stress, and help you feel more in control of your life.[1]

Tons of people feel stressed, and worry about how stressed they are. But, studies show that those who reframe their stress as a ‘response that helps them rise to challenges’ aren’t as negatively impacted by their stressful circumstances.[2,3]

Here are some steps and examples to begin practicing cognitive reframing.[1]

Step 1: Learn more about different negative thought patterns

Noticing negative thought patterns (called cognitive distortions) can be tricky, even impossible – unless you know what to look for. But once you learn more about these distorted thought patterns, it’s easier to identify them.[4]

Some common negative thought patterns are:

All-or-Nothing Thinking:

  • When we think in black and white extremes (often using phrases with ‘always’ and ‘never’) with no room for any grey area or middle ground.
    • Eg. A guy thinks “I never make new friends when I go out, so what’s the point” and decides to stay home alone instead.

Disqualifying the Positive:

  • When we dismiss positive events as flukes and see negative events as ‘the usual’, which cause us to be pessimistic about the future.
    • Eg. A guy gets a work assignment done late, but does really well on a presentation the next day, and thinks to himself, “Shit, I got lucky with the presentation, but I messed up that assignment and my boss isn’t going to let that go.”

Should Statements:

  • When we set rigid expectations for ourselves or others, and struggle to be flexible, we get stressed when our expectations aren’t met.
    • Eg. A guy is constantly stressed because he “should be in better shape” and he “should make more money”, for no real reason except this is what he thinks it takes to be a ‘real man’.

Labeling and Mislabeling:

  • When we place negative and extreme labels on ourselves and others for things that are small and relatively insignificant.
    • Eg. A guy plans to work out at the end of the day but is too tired and thinks, “I’m such a weak loser, I’m a total failure”.

Personalization:

  • When we take stressful situations personally and blame ourselves for things we have little or no control over.
    • Eg. A guy has just become a new dad, but one night he can’t stop his baby from crying. Instead of realizing babies sometimes cry a lot, he blames himself and thinks that he must be doing something wrong and he’s not father material.

Step 2: Identify automatic thoughts and notice your negative biases

Once you get better at identifying your negative thought patterns, you can practice reframing your thoughts to see things more objectively.

When feeling stressed or down, try using some of our stress management techniques to help you feel more clear-headed. Then, try to identify what thoughts and feelings came up automatically. Observe if those thoughts may be negatively biased, and see if they fit any of the distorted thought patterns you’ve learned about. If you’re busy, make a quick note to think back on it later.

For example, Mike was at home alone and feeling stressed. He goes for a walk to clear his head, and realizes he’s stressed because he thinks ‘nobody ever wants to talk to me’. After observing that thought, Mike realizes it sounds a lot like ‘All or Nothing’ thinking. In fact, he had an hour-long conversation with a friend only two days ago.

Step 3: Challenge your negative thoughts

Once you’ve identified a negative thought, ask yourself if the events that happened justify it. Are the things you are telling yourself objectively true? Or are they based around negative assumptions?  

Try to brainstorm other ways to interpret the same events (ask a friend to get their feedback and see how they perceive the situation). Think about which perspective is more useful to you – some ways of viewing the situation will likely cause you less stress than others. 

An easy way to practice this is by balancing a negative thought with a positive one in the form of “Yes___, but ___”.[5] Yes it is true I got laid off, but a lot of people got laid off during COVID-19 and I have a lot of skills and experience that make me a valuable employee.

  • To continue with Mike’s example above, he now considers how much of his thought is based on truth.
    • Is he actually always home alone, every single day?
    • What about his conclusion that nobody wants to talk to him?
    • Has everyone in his life actually told him that?
    • Has he invited anyone over to his place or outside to hang out? Has he called or texted anyone lately to catch up?
  • Mike now challenges his negative thought patterns directly.
    • Yes, he’s home alone often (not always), but he’s had friends over before, and if he doesn’t invite anyone over, does he really expect friends to just show up and invite themselves in?
    • Instead of taking his loneliness as evidence that nobody wants to talk, maybe he’s lonely because he isn’t reaching out as often anymore.
    • What if his friends feel lonely and think he doesn’t want to talk to them because he hasn’t reached out? If he doesn’t ask people if they are free or want to chat, then he doesn’t give them the opportunity to say yes.

Step 4: Reframe your negative thought patterns with more objective ones

Once you’ve recognized the cognitive distortions in your negative thoughts and challenged the truth in them, you can replace your negative thoughts with more objective ones. Objective thoughts better fit your situation and are usually a lot more positive as well.

Replacing your negative thought patterns involves using fewer negative words (eg. seeing a situation as a “challenge” instead of a “threat”), stopping negative self-talk (eg. start talking to yourself like you would to a friend), and finding silver linings.

  • Now Mike replaces his negative thoughts with more objective thoughts.
    • I’m feeling stressed because I’m often home alone → I can invite people over to hang out sometime, or go out to meet them somewhere.
    • I feel like people don’t want to talk to me because no one has called me recently, but they might feel the same way about me for not calling them → I can make more of an effort to reach out and talk to my friends. I can organize a hangout…this could be fun!
  • Mike is able to reframe his negative thoughts into more objective ones and realizes that his stress and loneliness is more likely a result of his inaction, rather than other peoples’ opinions about him. This means all hope isn’t lost, it’s something he can work on and get better at.

Additional examples

1. Reframing: Labeling and Mislabeling

Sam, who recently graduated from college, is struggling to find a job that will help him start saving up money for the future. He’s currently making minimum wage washing dishes while  trying to find better work. He’s gotten a couple interviews, but no job offers. Sam feels ashamed, he thinks, 

I’m never going to be able to make a decent living, no companies want me. I should already have a job. I’m a failure and a disappointment to myself and my family.

Sam takes several deep breaths to calm himself. Then he starts observing his thoughts and realizes that ‘never’ and ‘should’ are extreme words, and that he has no actual evidence that all companies in the world won’t hire him. Thinking he’s a ‘failure’ is also an unfair and untrue label to place on himself, and his family has never said they are ashamed of him.

Sam challenges his negative thoughts by thinking of more objective and likely explanations for his situation, using the “Yes, but” technique. 

  • Yes, it’s true that I’m having trouble finding work, but I just got done with college recently and am new to the field.
  • Yes, it’s common for people to have trouble finding work immediately after finishing training, but the fact that my training was recent is also a strength because I have newly updated skills employers will want. I know employers are interested because I’ve already had several interviews, which is a good thing. 
  • Yes, I’m worried about being able to make a decent living, but I work hard and I’ll make necessary living adjustments to make things work. 
  • Yes, I’m worried about my family being ashamed, but I know they care a lot about me and just want me to have a good life.

Sam replaces his negative thoughts with more objective and positive ones, reframing his situation entirely. He feels more relieved,

It might take a little while to find a better job, but I’ll be able to make enough money to take care of myself, and some company will hire me if I keep seeking them out and taking interviews. I’m a fighter and my family is supportive of me.

2. Reframing: Personalization

Carlos recently started a new relationship. He’s been on a few dates and things seem to be going well, but he can’t shake the feeling that his date will eventually leave him for someone else. While Carlos is waiting to meet up with his date, who is 20 minutes late, he thinks,

  • I probably said or did something wrong on our last date and now she’s standing me up. Why did I even bother getting my hopes up before? I guess this just gets things over faster instead of delaying the inevitable. Why would she want to be with me anyway?

In reality, his date is dealing with a family emergency.

Once Carlos reframes this stressful situation, he thinks,

  • I’m nervous about dating and how my date perceives me, but she seemed to enjoy our previous dates, so it’s unlikely she’s standing me up. She might be caught up in something. I need to hold off on jumping to any conclusions. I’ll probably find out what happened soon, so I’m going to stop making negative assumptions about it and enjoy my night.

Carlos had waited another 10 minutes for her and then decided to go for a walk. He tried contacting her later that night, but she didn’t reply. Instead of spending all night in bed blaming himself about getting stood up, he was able to put those thoughts aside and get some rest. The next day Carlos gets a call from his date. She’s incredibly sorry and explains the situation. His date is thankful that he understands that things come up and that he isn’t upset with her. They may have missed a date, but he’s also shown he can be a patient and understanding partner, and they plan to meet up later in the week.


Getting better at cognitive reframing takes practice. 

Like the camera analogy we began with, you first have to notice that your camera is zoomed in and that your perspective is distorted. Then you need to work on correcting it whenever you recognize a negative thought pattern. It will seem like a challenge at first, but once you’re used to zooming out and seeing “the bigger picture”, it will come more naturally. 

By replacing negative thought patterns using cognitive reframing, you’ll increase your mental strength and start reaping the rewards – relief from unnecessary stress and greater peace of mind.


References:

  1. How to Reframe Situations So They Create Less Stress | Verywell Mind
  2. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality | Health Psychology Journal, PMC – US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health
  3. Improving Acute Stress Responses: The Power of Reappraisal | Current Directions in Psychological Science, Association for Psychological Health
  4. Cognitive Distortions and Stress | Verywell Mind
  5. Cognitive Reframing – Practicing Mental Strengthening: Yes, But Technique | ScienceDirect
Written by the HeadsUpGuys Team - Combining lived experience, clinical practice, and research expertise. Reviewed and approved by Dr. John Ogrodniczuk - Professor and Director of the Psychotherapy Program at the Department of Psychiatry, The University of British Columbia.
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