How to reframe negative thoughts in addiction recovery
We all get negative thoughts. Everybody does – it’s part of being human. However, negative thoughts can overwhelm some of us. They can be prevalent in addiction recovery due to changes in the brain that take place and previous trauma. They can make life miserable – so much so that relapse becomes a serious risk as the only apparent escape from them.
Our Knowledge hub already contains articles on the causes of overthinking and obsessive behaviour. However, in this article, I want to look at alternative, psychologically backed ways of reframing negative thoughts as you go through your addiction recovery.
It’s more achievable than you may think. If you have internalized a faulty perspective (you view things through an unnecessarily negative lens) there is a process that you can make use of.
It’s called cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring can help you to reframe and restructure these unhelpful, damaging ways of thinking. It can bring you back from the prejudiced, skewed, or erroneous thought patterns and beliefs that you may hold.
Cognitive restructuring and your negative thoughts
So, what exactly is cognitive restructuring?
In short, it is a form of therapy or therapeutic practice. Through it, the patient is helped to discern, challenge, confront, and alter or replace their cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are simply those negative and/or irrational thoughts we want to rid ourselves of.
Cognitive restructuring forms a cornerstone of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a common form of therapeutic practice that can bring fantastic results to those undergoing recovery.
The theory behind cognitive restructuring is pretty simple. It rests on the idea that many of our problems spring from the distorted, negative ways in which we view ourselves and the wider world. These negative thoughts can colour everything and cloud our objectivity.
Cognitive restructuring seeks to tip the balance away from negative thoughts. It aims to help you cultivate more positive and helpful thought habits.
This may sound hard to do. It can be, of course. However, cognitive restructuring is like any other skill. It starts off hard and then gets gradually easier the more you practice.
Common cognitive restructuring techniques
Cognitive distortions sound hard to overcome. They are, after all, insidious, often hidden, and often very deeply ingrained in us. This can make it appear hard to overcome negative thought patterns.
However, there are several techniques that have been developed by experts in the field that can help. They will enable you to identify and challenge your negative thoughts and thought patterns. They can then help you to overcome them and replace them with more positive, more objective ways of thinking.
I could write forever on the methodology and theory underpinning cognitive restructuring. However, for now I want to focus on something more immediately helpful and achievable. I want to run you through some of the more common cognitive restructuring techniques. These are techniques that have helped people around the world to overcome their negative thought patterns and live a brighter, happier life.
Increasing awareness of negative thoughts
Awareness is key. Mindfulness is key. The first step towards overcoming your negative thoughts is learning to spot them, identify them, and isolate them.
This can often be the most challenging part of cognitive restructuring. It takes time and effort. Most of us don’t find it natural to observe our own thoughts and emotions. It’s even less natural to do so when you’re in the middle of experiencing heightened, negative thoughts and emotions.
However, this aspect of cognitive restructuring is also the most worthwhile.
You can start off looking for negative thoughts by building up your internal scanner for them. This will help you to identify your cognitive distortions. Think about when your negative thoughts or symptoms are the most severe. This could be when you are most depressed, angry, stressed or anxious. It may be hard. If it’s too much too begin with, that’s OK. You can begin by thinking about your behaviours instead. Identify those behaviours you would like to change. Think about when those behaviours occur, and what typically triggers them.
These triggering situations are often called ‘alarm’ situations. In short, they serve as alarms for the presence of cognitive distortion. For example, you may feel anxious when about to leave the house. This can be accompanied by physical symptoms like an elevated pulse and increased sweating. Or you might feel depressed when spending too much time alone, getting miserable as you find yourself growing lonely.
Can you think of any alarm situations in your own life? Any times that make you feel any negative emotions? Write a list if you can. Try to be specific about situations that trigger you. If you can, be specific about how you feel, both physically and mentally, and what you think at these times.
Visualisation can be a very potent tool in many situations. It can help you to overcome anxiety, manage pain, especially chronic pain, and dissipate and overcome anger and aggression. It is also a key method for cognitive restructuring and overcoming negative thoughts.
Guided imagery is a great method for managing your negative thoughts and behaviours. It is a relaxation technique that involves being guided to visualise positive, peaceful settings and scenarios. You may find it referred to as visualisation or guided meditation. Both names are very apt.
Broadly speaking, there are three main types of guided imagery. Most therapists will use them in their practice, and most formats will rely on one or several of them. These are life event visualisation, reinstatement of a dream or daytime image, and feeling, focussing.
For guided imagery to work, you will obviously need to be guided. Luckily, there are some great resources on numerous guided meditation techniques within our Knowledge hub and our Wellness hub for you to learn.
You can also find any number of guided meditations online. These can be purchased as audiobooks, streamed on popular platforms like Spotify, or even accessed for free on YouTube. Or instead, ask at your local bookstore. They should be able to help you source CBT workbooks that come with recordings and/or scripts to guide you.
Sometimes licensed CBT practitioners record their own audio guides. They might at least be able to if you ask.
Socratic questioning is both a great cognitive restructuring technique in itself, allowing you to challenge negative or harmful thoughts and behaviours, and a great method for advancing your own awareness of your negative thoughts.
It takes its name from the ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates. Socrates’ philosophical method typically involved asking a series of searching questions.
There are a range of common questions involved in Socratic questioning in a cognitive restructuring setting. These include the following:
- Is this thought realistic?
- Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?
- What is the evidence for this thought?
- Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
- Am I viewing the situation as black and white, when it’s really more complicated?
- Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?
There are plenty of worksheets available online if you would rather fill out an actual questionnaire-style form. Alternatively, simply ask yourself these questions when you suspect you are experiencing cognitive distortions.
Socratic questioning serves two main purposes.
The first purpose that this kind of questioning serves is obvious. By asking yourself these questions, you are approaching a situation with a fair degree of objectivity. This means that you are helping to rid yourself of bias. This means removing in large part the negative thought patterns you might otherwise be experiencing.
The second is less obvious but no less profound. We experience cognitive distortions in the moment. It’s common to see how your negative thoughts affected your behaviour and feelings in hindsight. However, at the time, they are all-consuming.
By asking the above questions, you are essentially taking a step back from any given situation. You are delaying your response and giving yourself a little distance. Think of it like repeating a mantra – the act of asking these questions will remove a great deal of anxiety and give you a clearer view of any given scenario.
Implementing the questions
When implementing these questions, start by identifying the negative thoughts and behaviours that you feel need scrutinising. This will take mindfulness, as we explored above. Think of a specific situation or thought that you suspect may be overly negative and disruptive. Think of something irrational.
Then subject that thought or situation to the rigours of Socratic questioning. Consider the evidence from all angles. You should be able to determine whether the negative thought was accurate and well-founded or inaccurate and based on a shaky foundation. If it is the former, it is rational; if it’s the latter, it’s irrational.
Where things are rational, great. Where they are not, this is likely a cognitive distortion. The Socratic questions above should undo that distortion, helping you to think more clearly and more positively.
You can perform this exercise in retrospect, i.e. after the event, or in the moment, if you are able.
Many therapists will have specific worksheets that can be used retrospectively. These will guide you through the whole exercise. Writing it all down on the worksheet will help you to map the behaviour, which will make the exercise all the more effective.
The Socratic method allows you to analyse your own thought processes and figure where your thoughts are coming from a place of truth or a cognitive distortion.
Reframing your negative thoughts
Catching your negative thoughts is key. Learning to catch them is a key skill in overcoming them. Seeing them, identifying them, and tying them to triggers will be the first and most profound step, as we have seen. This is where a lot of growth can occur.
Then, it is up to you and perhaps a therapist to begin the process of change. This will be a very active process at the beginning of your journey. However, as time goes by, you will become more fluent in the kinds of techniques we’ve seen today. They will become almost automatic, manifesting in the moment.
Eventually, you should be able to mitigate or even rid yourself of negative thoughts and the cognitive distortions that cause them. This will allow you to see the world more clearly, more positively, whilst enabling you to navigate your life with a greater degree of wellness and mindfulness.
For those going through addiction recovery, the more you undo these cognitive distortions, the less likely you are to relapse. You will have a happier, more constructive, more effective recovery, always building towards a brighter future.
- Positive psychology CBT- Cognitive restructuring: https://positivepsychology.com/cbt-cognitive-restructuring-cognitive-distortions/
- Evaluation of cognitive restructuring for post-traumatic stress disorder in people with severe mental illness - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4450219/