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5 Steps for Restructuring Thoughts and Reducing Stress

March 02, 2023

By Alfonso Perillo, CPA, LICSW

There are many articles that offer advice about managing stress during tax season, and you’re likely familiar with the tools: engage in self-care by eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep, set boundaries with clients (and even supervisors), delegate, etc.  

These are excellent tools to cope with stress, which is the human response to external triggers; however, stress management tools are insufficient in reducing anxiety and depression, which are caused by internal triggers. These triggers are how you perceive and respond to both external stressors and to your own thoughts and emotions. While clinical anxiety and depression requires treatment from a qualified mental health professional, the following addresses the normal experience of temporary and subclinical anxiety and depression, and the occasional experience of sadness, anger and burnout.

The role of thoughts

Humans perceive and make judgments about day-to-day and moment-to-moment experiences with a wide range and number of automatic thoughts. These thoughts are often just below conscious awareness, occur rapidly and are assumed to be true. Negative automatic thoughts are the internal triggers that can cause emotional distress, which is why you can experience stress, without being anxious and depressed. It’s your perception of the situation that causes emotional distress, not the situation itself. While experiencing negative emotions can feel bad and you can generally tolerate these without adverse consequences, sometimes they can lead you to act in ways that are inconsistent with your personal and professional values.  

For example, let’s say you get an upsetting email from a client asking about the status of their return. If you think, “No big deal, I’ll call them and resolve the problem.” You’ll likely feel confident and calm and will be able to address the issue. If, on the other hand, you think, “This tax season is the worst!” You will likely feel anxious, possibly even angry, and may behave in an unproductive way by avoiding the client or writing a harsh response.  

It doesn’t stop there. In the example above, you might realize that your email was too harsh, causing you to feel regretful and possibly even anxious. This is downward spiral of thoughts and emotions is called rumination and is a behavior where your mind tries to resolve emotional distress by thinking about it.  

Unfortunately, rumination usually results in unhappiness and distraction, which in turn leads you to falling even further behind.

How to improve your thinking

Thought restructuring is a way to challenge or modify negative internal thoughts to cope with internal triggers and is one of the many skills mental health practitioners teach their clients. Here are five steps to practice thought restructuring:  

STEP 1: Notice the change in mood  

How do you increase awareness of automatic thoughts? The key is to connect with your emotions, which are typically perceived as positive, negative or neutral. The first step is to notice the downward turn in mood and ask yourself, “What was I just thinking?” It may even be helpful to briefly jot down your thoughts.  

STEP 2: Measure your mood

Your mood changes and fluctuates throughout the day. It can be helpful to measure the intensity of your negative emotions using an internal thermometer with a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being the most intense. Write this down next to your thoughts from the first step.  

STEP 3: Identify the unhelpful thought

Negative or distorted thoughts are thought patterns that create an inaccurate, rigid and unhealthy view of reality.  

The following is a list of common distorted thoughts:  

  • Catastrophizing or awfulizing (predicting the worst-case scenario or outcome) — All or none thinking
  • Emotional reasoning (believing something to be true because you feel it is) Discounting the positive and only seeing the negative 
    Labeling (putting a fixed label on yourself or others)
  • Overgeneralizing
  • “Should” thinking/statements (inflexible expectations for how you or others should behave and overestimating how bad it is when these expectations are not met)

STEP 4: Thought restructuring

Once a distorted thought is identified, you can challenge the thought to lessen its power. Challenging the assumption of “trueness” is the key to thought restructuring. As you notice the thoughts, make a mental note about the type of distortion, as well as evidence for and against the thought to identify facts.  

Facts are what data shows is true and are often confused with opinions, judgements or assumptions. This can be diff cult, as we are generally inclined to view our beliefs as facts and rarely challenge them.  

The goal of cognitive restructuring is not to simply discount the negative thought and replace it with a positive one, but rather to have a more balanced thought. In this case, identify the thought, “This is the worst tax season ever,” as catastrophizing and overgeneralizing, and challenge it by examining the facts and with skepticism. How do you know it’s the worst tax season? What data supports this? Restructure the thought by coming up with a more balanced one, such as, “This is a difficult tax season, but I’ve coped with tax seasons before,” or, “This is one client who is anxious about their taxes, and other clients are generally reasonable.” Write down the more balanced thought.  

STEP 5: Rechecking your mood

After completing the exercise, observe whether your anxiety has decreased. In general, you’ll know the exercise has worked if your negative emotions have lessened. You’re not necessarily looking for your anxiety to go from a seven to zero, so even if your anxiety goes down to a five, this means you’ve reduced it by 29%!  

Practicing thought restructuring is an effective tool to manage negative emotions and increase the likelihood that you behave in a way that aligns with your values. Like most tools, it takes persistence to do this well, but the more you do it, the sooner you’ll be able to help decrease your anxiety and change your mindset.

Alfonso Perillo, CPA, LICSW, is a behavioral health clinician at Lahey Health Behavioral Services. Contact him at .