Beyond ‘Only’: A Simple CBT Trick to Transform Negative Thoughts

Are you struggling to find or maintain motivation towards your goals? Do negative thoughts constantly sabotage your progress? Your “self-talk” shapes your reality and conveys unconscious biases or beliefs.

Cognitive restructuring (or cognitive reframing) is a commonly-used process within Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The purpose of cognitive restructuring is to help clients discover, challenge, and modify or replace their negative, irrational thoughts. In general, CBT empowers individuals to develop healthier coping mechanisms and achieve their goals by examining the connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In this article, we’ll explore a simple, yet powerful technique to help you break free from negative thinking. But first, a little background.

Our Brains and Negativity Bias

Our brains are hard-wired to tune into the negative, a phenomenon known as negativity bias. This means that we’re more likely to dwell on negative experiences and thoughts, which can hinder our motivation and self-esteem. But there’s good news: we have the power to rewire our brains and shift our perspective.

Language and emotion are deeply interconnected in the brain, with structures like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex playing key roles in processing both. When we use judgmental language like “only,” it triggers negative emotions and reinforces limiting beliefs. One simple yet effective technique is to remove judgmental language from our statements and replace it with positive alternatives. When we do this, we activate areas of the brain associated with reward and motivation, empowering us to overcome obstacles and stay focused on our goals.

How to Transform Negative into Positive

Consider the thoughts and feelings triggered by the following statement:

“I only studied for 10 minutes before I got distracted.” Sounds bad and feels negative, right?

But, by removing the word “only” from the statement, it suddenly feels different:

“I studied for 10 minutes before I got distracted.” This is a bit more neutral and feels a bit better. But why stop there?

Let’s replace “only” with “already” and notice what happens:

“I already studied for 10 minutes before I got distracted.” Doesn’t that feel a lot better?!

This small adjustment can make a big difference in how we perceive our progress and maintain motivation towards our goals. By reframing our thoughts, we can combat negativity bias and cultivate a more positive mindset. But how does this work on a neurological level?

Our brains are made up of networks of cells that work together to form thoughts, feelings, and actions. Connection between neurons signal the emotional limbic system which signals hormones to enter the receptor sites on cells. In turn, those messages or emotional signals tell the genes to create new proteins that result in new pathways.

One amazing thing that our brain can do is adapt and change based on input. This is the concept of neuroplasticity – essentially, it’s the idea that our brain changes when different parts are activated. And, repeatedly activating the same areas of the brain strengthens the connections. For example, think about the process of learning a new task such as learning piano or riding a bike. With repeated practice, your brain learns how to do it better.

Similar to practicing a physical activity, your brain also gets better with repeated practice on mental activity such as thinking positively. Through the magic of neuroplasticity, cognitive restructuring techniques essentially strengthen neural pathways that promote thinking differently.

So, the next time you catch yourself using the word “only” in a negative context, pause and reframe your statement. Notice the shift in how you feel and the impact it has on your motivation. Remember, your own “self-talk” shapes your reality, so choose your words wisely and cultivate a mindset of positivity and possibility.


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