Cognitive Restructuring: What Is This Therapeutic Strategy Like?

Cognitive restructuring is one of those concepts that, through the practice of psychotherapy, have become part of the great pillars of the cognitivist current, the dominant paradigm in current psychology. Since the psychologist Albert Ellis established its foundations in the mid-20th century, this resource has become one of the great pillars of psychological intervention based on the cognitivist paradigm, the dominant one today.

In this article we will see what exactly is cognitive restructuring and how it helps map the logic that psychotherapy has to follow. But, to answer this question we must first understand what cognitive schemas are.

The concept of cognitive schema

When understanding the complexity of the human mind, most psychologists use a concept known as cognitive schema. A cognitive schema is a set of beliefs, concepts and “mental images” that, through the way they relate to each other, create a system that shapes our way of interpreting reality and makes us more likely to act in a way that we do not believe. other.

Thus, the cognitive schemes on which the idea of ​​cognitive restructuring is based are, basically, the structure of our mentality the way in which we have learned to shape what we think and say, and what leads us to behave as we normally do of our own free will.

We must keep in mind, however, that a cognitive schema is a useful representation about what really happens in our brains. As a representation that is, does not accurately capture the functioning of human thought but rather it simplifies it so that it is possible for us to make hypotheses and predictions about how we act and how we interpret things.

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In reality, in mental processes the content of our thoughts is not something separate from the neural “circuits” through which they pass, which means that the concept of cognitive schema does not perfectly capture the dynamic and changing character of our brain.

Cognitive restructuring: a definition

As we have seen, mental processes, although they have a certain stability (otherwise we would not be able to talk about personality or cognitive schemes), it is also very changeable and malleable. Cognitive restructuring takes advantage of this duality to offer a psychological intervention strategy useful for cognitive-behavioral therapies

Specifically, what is proposed is that, through cognitive restructuring, we are able to modify our way of thinking and interpreting things in favor of the objective established in the therapy. Many times, a good part of the problems that patients have in psychotherapy consultations have to do with the impossibility of seeking alternative explanations for what is happening, while the ideas from which they start lead to a dead end that causes anxiety, sadness, etc.

Thus, cognitive restructuring can be defined as a strategy used to improve psychotherapy patients’ chances of modify their cognitive schemes in the most adaptive way possible That is, it helps us not to be simple recipients of environmental influences, but rather to be able to shape our mentality and habits in a way that makes us happy and allows us to live better.

Mental flexibility is not something new

For some people, the idea of ​​changing the structural aspects of our thinking for the sake of our happiness may sound too good to be true. The belief that after childhood and adolescence individuals do not change has become very widespread. However, although we may not realize it, there are many situations that show us the opposite.

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Even outside the framework of psychotherapy and cognitive restructuring, there are contexts in which we are capable of acting in a way that does not define us. In fact, although it may not seem like it, our mindset is constantly changing: the simple fact of being in certain contexts and not others can cause us to have very different opinions and beliefs than those that would normally define us, in a matter of minutes.

For example, social pressure can lead us to perform acts that we would never have said we would be capable of carrying out, as demonstrated by the different repetitions of the Milgram experiment. Likewise, the existence of sects based on fundamentalism shows us that all types of people are capable of putting aside their family to dedicate all their efforts to making their religious community prosper.

In these cases, not only do people’s actions change, but also their thoughts, which they become relatively consistent with what is done at least for a while.

In short, although we sometimes have the feeling that inside people’s heads there is a totally stable way of thinking that shows us the essence of that specific individual, this is an illusion. What happens is that normally people try not to expose themselves to situations that lead them to confront their fundamental beliefs so these changes in cognitive schemes tend to be slow and go unnoticed.

The difficult part of psychotherapy sessions

As we have seen, in special situations our actions may not correspond to the type of ideas and beliefs that we would say define us. The challenge is, however, to make these changes relatively stable and permanent instead of appearing only when we are in that certain type of situation, and in make them aim towards the objectives pursued with the therapy and not in any of the others.

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Cognitive restructuring is just that, an effort to make our mental processes take different channels than usual, and all of this in a directed way, without letting chance determine what type of changes will take place in attitudes. and beliefs of people.

On the other hand, it must also be clear that cognitive restructuring has to be framed in a program that seeks to change not only beliefs, but the “theory” of what a person believes. The practice must also be modified, what the person does in their daily lives. In fact, if reality shows us anything, as we have seen, it is that Ideas and beliefs do not arise spontaneously in our heads, but are part of our dynamic interactions with the environment, the situations we go through. Our actions modify our environment as much as our environment modifies the mental processes that guide them.