What if you could combine aspects of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) with journaling in order to combat negative thinking? Well, now you can: a licensed medical doctor in Europe invented something called “cognitive journaling,” which can help people “unravel their thinking.”

Dr. Richard Ragnarson, close to finishing his residency in psychiatry, says his journaling method is a “repeatable process that you can use to increase your self-awareness, challenge your assumptions, and experiment with new types of thinking.” He goes on to explain that while writing down your thoughts in a journal can help you observe your own thinking, traditional journaling does nothing to change your current way of thinking. Instead, most people end up coming up with more evidence for their beliefs, which can reinforce unhealthy thinking patterns.

So, Ragnarson wanted to try out a type of journaling that would help people remain objective while still writing down their innermost thoughts and feelings. Below, we’ll explain why cognitive journaling can provide an effective way to overcome unhelpful thinking habits.

Here’s how cognitive journaling can halt negative thinking:

Dr. Ragnarson says that other types of journaling prevent us from changing the way we think because they reinforce our “preference for maintaining internal coherence.” This is basically our mind’s way of understanding the world and helping us survive based on our perception of it. This is one of the biggest reasons that people find change so difficult, because we literally have to rewire our brain to alter its deeply entrenched programming.

When we try to alter our perception of the world, we must fight against our current thinking and understanding of it; as you might know, this can seem utterly impossible. Of course, in order to bring about change, we have to think and react differently. This does take time, but cognitive journaling could provide a stepping stone on the path to positive thinking.

Here’s the basis of cognitive journaling:

  • First, you must describe emotional and mental events in the way they appear to you using objective methods.
  • Then, you must document the observed connections between your emotions, thoughts, and circumstances.
  • Finally, these methods will enable you to challenge your ways of thinking and discover how you can start feeling better by changing your thoughts.

Despite this method of journaling being effective, Ragnarson says that it is no substitute for working with a licensed therapist. As you progress in therapy, it will help you become more effective in applying the self-help techniques that you learn here, so it’s best to utilize both methods in the beginning. Now, before we get into the details of cognitive journaling, we’ll go over what’s called “The ABC model of cognition.”

The ABC model of cognition

This stands for activating event, beliefs, and consequences. Basically, all life experiences are comprised of these three ideas.

  1. The activating event. This is any event that triggers a chain of thoughts and emotions. It can be an internal or external event, but in this article, we’ll just focus on external.
  2. Belief. This is our thoughts and feelings about the event. We might not even notice them if they’re subtle, but they can also be very intrusive. Our beliefs could simply be mental images as well.
  3. The consequences. These are the results of our actions or feelings that occur in A and B.

So, our thoughts result from our feelings and beliefs about a particular event, and we act on how we feel. This explains why people react in different ways to the same stimuli, because their beliefs and thoughts about the event lead to different consequences.

For example, if you have to give a speech in front of your class and feel that you won’t do well, you probably will psyche yourself out. However, if you feel confident and know that you’ll deliver a good speech, the results will likely show that. Our thoughts become reality. Knowing this, we can tailor our thoughts to match what we want to see in the outside world.

The real problem lies in the fact that, in everyday life, we often don’t pay any attention to our beliefs. We skip from A to C without examining our interpretations or perceptions of an event. For example, let’s go back to the speech scenario. You might think, “Giving a speech made me feel nervous and inadequate. I suck at everything.”

However, this type of thinking overlooks the belief (B) entirely. You should say instead, “I gave my speech, thought I did poorly, and felt embarrassed.” In this way, you compartmentalize your feelings and realize that not all situations will have the same outcome. You can also gain better insight into why you felt this way. Did the class say or do anything to make you feel nervous? Probably not. More than likely, your internal beliefs created an external event.

In this way, thoughts can become problematic because they can become activating events (A) which can create even more negative thoughts. We often become victims of events due to our own thoughts about them, which can create a helpless mentality. Judging our thoughts and emotions causes this to occur, so stepping back and rationalizing these thoughts can really help us move forward.

In other words, our minds have the power to build us up or tear us down, but we can feed ourselves positive information so that the brain works for us rather than against us. The ABC model works because, instead of trying to change our emotions, it emphasizes changing our thoughts about an event, which will allow us to experience new emotions when that event occurs again.

For example, if you hate your job, you might think that finding a new job will make you happier. However, if your beliefs cause you to dislike all your jobs, you probably won’t find happiness in a new one. Most people look at work as drudgery, so of course, their experiences at work will reflect this belief. As you can see, the mind houses our perception of reality, and to have a positive one, we must adjust our belief systems accordingly.

So, the takeaway from this is that changing the activating event in an attempt to alter an emotional state will not work in the long run. The beliefs and thoughts about an event must change first in order to feel different emotions if that event should occur again.

How to Do Cognitive Journaling

Now that you know the basics of the ABC model and how you can influence your thoughts about events in your life by changing your beliefs, let’s look at how to set up your journal for success.

The Practice Program

We’ve broken up the steps into weeks so that you can slowly integrate the practice into your life.

Week 1: Make journaling a part of your life

First, start off by using the ABC model for one event that happened in your life. It can be big or small; just make sure you can describe it in detail using facts and nonjudgmental language.

Start with the consequence, then the activating event, and then the belief about the event. It should look like this:

C = I felt the emotion of [insert emotion] /I did [insert behavior]

A = The situation was [insert detailed situation]

B = I thought that [insert thought or belief]

Try to write one sentence using this model and structure at least once a day. Don’t focus on trying to change your thoughts or feelings this first week; instead, just become comfortable with writing down your experiences using the ABC model.

Week 2: Identify your beliefs

Keep up your practice from week 1, but this time, dedicate a few minutes each day to examining your beliefs. Write down each of your beliefs about the event and then ask yourself logically if the beliefs you have about an event really make sense. Do they help you achieve the emotion you desire to feel?

Pay attention to any pattern you notice in your beliefs about certain situations.

Week 3: Challenge your beliefs

Continue the process from the previous weeks of journaling, but this time, try to challenge the beliefs you have.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are my beliefs logical?
  • Are they falsifiable (based on facts)?
  • Is it useful?
  • Is it rigid or flexible?

If your belief evokes a positive response, you’ll have answered “yes” to all of those questions. However, if it’s a negative belief, then you will have probably answered “no” to the above questions. Even if you only answered “no” to one question, the belief still needs further examining.

Record your thoughts on analyzing your beliefs in your journal.

Week 4: Building better beliefs

After identifying your bad beliefs, try to find one to three replacement beliefs about each event. Make sure your beliefs are flexible, logical, helpful, and falsifiable. Choose one belief to put in one of your C-A-B statements and see what emotion that triggers in you. If you feel positively about it, try to think about your new belief each time you find yourself in the same situation.

keep a journal

Final thoughts

Cognitive journaling can provide real benefits over time as long as you keep up the practice. In your daily life, you will naturally become more aware of your beliefs and thought processes and start to challenge them more often. In time, you’ll start to see the world through a whole new lens.