Cognitive Therapy: Reduce Stress and Challenge Your Assumptions

Cognitive therapy is a powerful technique for dealing with stress and negative thinking. This type of therapy can promote a positive mental attitude and improve your skills for coping with stress.

"People are not disturbed by events themselves, but rather by the views they take of them."


Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts influence our emotions and behavior.

Just thinking about a happy experience will typically put you in a good mood, while thinking about an unhappy experience will typically have the opposite effect.

The key to cognitive-based therapy for stress relief is that our moods, or stress, are driven by what we tell ourselves.

So a cognitive therapist will typically:

  • target the spontaneous thoughts you have
  • the assumptions that you make
  • how these thoughts and assumptions contribute to your stress and anxiety.

Cognitive therapy is a psychological technique that has been applied to a range of issues, which include stress and anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and many others.

Using Cognitive Therapy for Stress

According to our definition of stress, stress in our lives is not simply a result of external events, but how we think about them.

In other words, how you appraise the situation matters!

Take for example Jack and Jill who are commuting to work and are stuck in a traffic jam at rush hour.

Thoughts influence Emotions: An Example of Commuting to Work



"I've got to get out of here", "why does this always happen to me"


"this is my chance to listen to some music", "I can use this time to practice my breathing exercises"



Possibly a combination of stress, frustration, anger and anxiety


This person is likely to feel more relaxed and have a greater sense of calm and control.

While Jack and Jill are in the same situation, their thoughts and emotions are very different. Jack is stressed and frustrated while Jill is relaxed and calm.

Cognitive therapists typically target the the individual's self talk, their internal monologue, which can lead to these distressing emotions.

Like Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Therapy, the core of Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy is to challenge the cognitive distortions of the client.

Using cognitive therapy for stress reduction

Stress is largely a result of how you interpret the external situation. So tackling stress by examining thoughts is one of the best stress reducers.

How you interpret the situation is governed in turn by the overall attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that you may hold.

In cognitive therapy, therapists use a cognitive approach with clients to identify their thought patterns, beliefs and expectations and work with them to change these into more adaptive thoughts and beliefs.

It has been found that this cognitive approach to stress reduction is effective and quick. Sometimes results can be seen in as little as a month, but typically the number of sessions range from 8-20 sessions.

What to expect from cognitive therapy

Typically you can expect cognitive therapy proceed through a process of cognitive restructuring.

Cognitive restructuring has been shown to be very helpful for people with anxiety, stress and depression among others.

Cognitive restructuring, or the challenging of negative thoughts, typically involves the following steps:

Identifying the negative thoughts

What are the thoughts that lead to some of your typical warning signs of stress?

People with anxiety disorders generally have thoughts that are perceived as more threatening than normal.

For example, somebody with social anxiety disorder may find that meeting others may be considered highly threatening and embarrassing.

While this could be considered an irrational fear that is associated with scary thoughts, a therapist would start by examining some of the thoughts surrounding the situation of meeting others.

Challenging the negative thoughts

A cognitive therapist helps you to evaluate some of these anxiety-provoking thoughts and beliefs that may underpin your emotions.

They may ask you to identify evidence for such thoughts and whether these thoughts and negative predictions match up against reality.

They try to help you to identify the pros and cons of keeping such thoughts and possibly conduct behavioral experiments to test your thoughts and predictions.

Replacing the negative thoughts with more realistic thoughts

Once you have identified the negative thoughts and beliefs that cause you stress or anxiety these thoughts can be replaced with more helpful and realistic thoughts and beliefs.

Your cognitive therapist may help you with replacing these thoughts with more calming thoughts. They may also give you strategies and various relaxation techniques to use when in stress or anxiety-provoking situations.

One of the common causes of stress, especially in the current circumstances, is worrying about losing your job.

This is used as an example of challenging your negative thoughts with more constructive thoughts below.

Jim is worried about losing his job in the current economic downturn. It is not normal worry but constant worrying that is starting to affect his work performance, sleep patterns, his overall stress levels and the quality of his life.

Here is one possible way that cognitive therapy may help Jim to deal with Jim's constant worrying.

Challenging negative thoughts: Cognitive Restructuring

Negative thoughts

I am a failure if I lose this job.

What will my friends think of me if I lose my job.

I am not going to survive if I lose this job.

Constructive thoughts

I may not hold down this job, but I am not a failure.

It is their choice if they think badly of me. I would like them to be approving but I cannot demand their approval.

Many hundreds of thousands have survived unemployment. This will force me to learn more skills and I may get a job that is more rewarding.

This cognitive approach to stress relief has also been combined with mindfulness (called mindfulness based cognitive therapy) and behavior therapy (called cognitive behavior therapy).

Finding a cognitive therapist

If you are interested in seeking professional help for dealing with stress then ask your family doctor for a referral. Similarly, friends and family members may know of a good psychologist or other health professional to help you manage your stress or anxiety.

When you find a therapist ask them if they are familiar with cognitive therapy (or cognitive behavior therapy) for stress relief or anxiety reduction.

If you are not interested in seeing a therapist at the moment, then there are a number of stress management techniques that you can consider.

How can I use cognitive therapy for stress relief

After keeping a stress diary for a week or so you may notice that there are certain causes of stress that keep occurring.

Identify what your emotions are when this occurs. Are you sad, angry, humiliated, insecure?

these emotions and many others can be felt concurrently.

Try to identify what your causal thought is for this emotion. This can be quite a challenging task and a cognitive therapist can useful.

Once you have identified the causal thought that causes you stress find evidence that disputes this. Hypothesis testing is useful here.

Challenging these automatic causal thoughts with more realistic and rational thoughts can be beneficial to your overall stress management.

This site is for information purposes only. If you are finding that your stress and anxiety is unmanageable you should visit your local health practitioner as soon as possible.

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