Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives. In the context of cognitive therapy, cognitive reframing is referred to as cognitive restructuring. Cognitive re-framing, on the other hand, refers to the process as it occurs either voluntarily or automatically in all settings.
Aaron T. Beck developed cognitive therapy in the 1960s. Beck worked with patients that had been diagnosed with depression, and found that negative thoughts would come into minds of these patients. Beck helped his patients recognize the impact of their negative thoughts, and aided them in shifting their mindset to think more positively—eventually lessening or even getting rid of the patient’s depression. This process was termed cognitive restructuring - the main goal of which was to rethink negative thoughts and turn them into positive thoughts Cognitive restructuring as a tool in therapeutic settings led other researchers to recognize that this process happens outside the clinic, and would lead them to develop the term cognitive reframing as a way to describe the more generalized process.
Therapeutic uses of cognitive reframing
Cognitive reframing can be useful in many ways, such as when trying to improve memory, reduce test anxiety, and helping parents and children cope with disabilities. For example, people with memory problems were told that their memory could be improved by shifting their perspective on their problem. After receiving treatment, their memory improved. Additionally, parents whose children had disabilities changed their view on their children. Otherwise, some parents only had negative thoughts about their disabled children.
Differentiated from cognitive restructuring and distortion
Cognitive reframing can refer to almost any conscious shift in a person’s mental perspective. For this reason, it is commonly confused with both cognitive restructuring and cognitive distortion. However, there are distinct differences between the three. Reframing is the general change in a person’s mindset, whether it be a positive or negative change. Restructuring is the act of therapeutically changing one’s mindset to strengthen oneself—meaning that it always has a positive connotation. In this way, cognitive restructuring is a particular instance of cognitive reframing.
Distortions are exaggerated and typically negative thoughts not supported by a rational thought process. If someone suffers from a series of distortions (which can lead to depression, poor decisions, and other negative results), the need for cognitive restructuring may present itself. Therefore, distortion is a problem which may be solved by cognitive reframing. Yet another major distinguishing feature between cognitive reframing and cognitive restructuring is awareness—that is, cognitive reframing can happen subconsciously, while cognitive restructuring, as something done at the explicit behest of a therapist, is conscious. That is, since cognitive restructuring is a therapeutic technique, it requires the person to recognize and consciously shift their frame of reference to a more ‘positive’ one. However, since reframing just requires any mental frameshift, there does not need to be any conscious decision to alter one’s perspective. For example, when an individual exhibits hindsight bias, they are unconsciously changing their frame of reference to retain pride and self-esteem Though the need to negatively reframe thoughts is arguably not as frequent as the need to positively reframe them, there are instances in which it is beneficial to negatively reframe thoughts. For example, in theatre, an actor may need to appear sadder or in a more negative state of mind. In order to accomplish this, he or she may alter his or her state of mind through cognitive reframing in order to appear externally more dysphoric. Another use of cognitive reframing can be seen when one tries to make one’s viewpoints objective—that is, shifting your perspective to be neutral about a certain situation.
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- Woolfson, L. (2003). Disabled children, parents and society: A need for cognitive reframing. Proceedings of the British Psychological Society, 11, 5
- Ray, R.D., Ochsner, K.N., Cooper, J.C., Robertson, E.R., Gabrieli, J.D.E. & Gross, J.J. (2005). Individual differences in trait rumination and the neural systems supporting cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 5, 156-168
- Louie, T.A. (1999). Decision makers’ hindsight bias after receiving favorable and unfavorable feedback. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 29-41