What is Cognitive Reframing and How it Can Make You Happier

What is Cognitive Reframing

I defined myself by my trauma for a long time. I was my trauma.

And in doing that, I believed that someone like me couldn’t live the kind of life others can.

So, essentially, I limited myself because of how I was framing my trauma.

And a side note, I found that in many healing circles, that’s a norm, a strong focus on trauma and identification with it. Sadly, this keeps you from growth.

But to move forward and become just a little bit happier, I had to learn how to reframe my trauma.

I started by saying, “Yes, I experienced trauma, but I am not my trauma.”

And from there, I learned methods to reframe it, which I now practice for my past trauma and any situation that initially seems negative.

There’s a scientific name for this process called cognitive reframing. Anyone can use it, and in this article, I’ll review the studies on cognitive reframing (also called cognitive reappraisal) and give you practical ways to use this method.

What is cognitive reframing?

Cognitive reframing is about taking that difficult thought and finding a new way to look at it that feels better and more positive.

It’s not about pretending everything is perfect when it’s not, but rather, finding a new perspective to help you cope with the situation healthier.

It’s like changing the frame around your thoughts so you can see them in a different light.

What are studies on cognitive reappraisal (aka cognitive reframing)?

The whole point of the Just a Little Bit Happier Project is to breakdown the research on happiness into practical steps, so what does the research say?

“Cognitive Reappraisal and Expressive Suppression Strategies Role in the Emotion Regulation: An Overview on their Modulatory Effects and Neural Correlates” by Messina et al., 2015. This paper looks at how changing the way you think about something that might upset you can help control your feelings. The research shows that this strategy, called cognitive reappraisal, is an excellent way to handle negative emotions.

“Cognitive Reappraisal of Emotion: A Meta-Analysis of Human Neuroimaging Studies” by Buhle et al., 2014 In this study, the researchers looked at several brain scan studies to understand how cognitive reappraisal works in the brain. They found it involves several brain areas linked to controlling thoughts and feelings. This supports the idea that changing how we think about emotional experiences can help manage bad feelings.

“The Influence of Cognitive Reappraisal and Suppression on the Neural Response to Stress” by Modinos et al., 2015 This study used brain scans to see how cognitive reappraisal and suppression (not showing your feelings) affect how we respond to stress. The researchers found that changing how we think about stressful things reduces stress responses in a part of the brain that handles emotions.

“Cognitive Reappraisal Self-Efficacy Mediates the Effects of Individual Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms” by Langkaas et al., 2017 This study looked at how believing in your ability to successfully change your thinking about stressful events (cognitive reappraisal self-efficacy) can affect the results of a type of therapy (cognitive-behavioral therapy) for PTSD. The research found that reframing how you think about traumatic experiences is critical to recovering from PTSD.

“Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation: Insights from Neurobiological, Psychological, and Clinical Studies” by Guendelman et al., 2017 This paper discusses how mindfulness, which often involves changing the way you think about things, can help control emotional responses. The authors suggest that mindfulness can reduce distress and improve mental health.

How does cognitive reframing make you happier?

Based on the research, here are ways that reframing can help make you a little bit happier.

  • Understanding your emotions better: Cognitive reappraisal changes how you think about a situation that might upset you, effectively decreasing negative emotions. This isn’t about pretending to be happy; it’s about genuinely shifting your perspective to see things more positively or neutrally.

  • Your brain’s role in emotions: Cognitive reappraisal involves several parts of your brain that control your thoughts and feelings. This shows that the process is more than just a mental exercise; it’s a physiological process involving complex brain activity.

  • Handling stress better: Cognitive reappraisal doesn’t only help with negative emotions. It can also help you manage stress better. It does this by decreasing the amygdala response, a part of your brain that triggers when you’re stressed or scared.

  • Boosting therapy effectiveness: Believing in your ability to effectively change your thinking about stressful events, also known as cognitive reappraisal self-efficacy, plays a significant role in the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy for conditions like PTSD. This suggests that your confidence in handling stress and trauma can significantly affect recovery.

  • Reducing distress with mindfulness: Mindfulness, which often involves being present at the moment and accepting your feelings without judgment, can help you control your emotional responses. This not only reduces distress but also promotes better overall mental health. Paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without trying to change them can be a powerful tool for emotional regulation.

How do I teach my brain to reframe negative thoughts?

Let’s get into the ways anyone can reframing work for them.

  1. Practice reframing: When you are in a distressing situation, try changing your perspective. Instead of focusing on the negatives, try to find the positives or the growth opportunities. For example, if you’re stuck in traffic, consider it a chance to listen to a podcast or enjoy some music instead of getting frustrated.

  2. Understand your emotions: Spend some time each day reflecting on your feelings and what might be causing them. This helps you better understand why you feel the way you do and how you can change your perspective to feel better.

  3. Use mindfulness exercises: Mindfulness exercises, like meditation or deep breathing, can help you stay present and accept your feelings without judgment. Try to spend a few minutes each day practicing mindfulness, and remember that it’s okay to have negative emotions sometimes.

  4. Journaling: Writing about your thoughts and feelings can help you understand them better. Try to write about a stressful situation from a different perspective or list the positive aspects of a difficult day. This practice can promote cognitive reappraisal and help you see things in a new light.

  5. Practice gratitude: Make it a habit to acknowledge the good things in your life, no matter how small. This can help you reframe your perspective to focus more on the positive aspects of your life. Keep a gratitude journal or take a few moments each day to think about your gratitude.

What is an example of a cognitive reframe?

Here are some examples of how you can do this in real-life situations.

Situation: Job Rejection

  • Initial thought: “I didn’t get the job. I’m not good enough and my skills are worthless.”

  • Reframed thought: “Not getting this job doesn’t mean I lack skills or I’m not good enough. It just means this wasn’t the right fit. I can use this as an opportunity to improve my interview skills and keep looking for a job that suits me better.”

Situation: Relationship Ending

  • Initial thought: “My relationship ended. I’m unlovable and will always be alone.”

  • Reframed thought: “Even though it hurts that this relationship ended, it doesn’t define my worth or my ability to find love again. I can take this time to learn from the experience, grow as an individual, and eventually find a relationship that’s healthier and more fulfilling.”

Situation: Financial Stress

  • Initial thought: “I’m struggling financially. I’m a failure and I’ll never be able to support myself.”

  • Reframed thought: “Although I’m facing financial challenges right now, it doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It’s a tough spot, but it’s temporary. I can create a budget, cut back on non-essential expenses, and explore additional sources of income to work towards financial stability.”

These are challenging situations, and cognitive reframing doesn’t negate the difficulty. Instead, it manages the emotional impact and encourages proactive steps toward resolution, which moves you forward instead of feeling stuck.


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