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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Why Our Thoughts Matter

By | 2017-11-27T14:19:31+00:00 September 12th, 2016|

Anyone who has taken an “Intro to Psych” course or read enough self-help literature has probably heard of the term “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”. This is one of my favorite schools of thought as a clinician. What I like about it is that it is straightforward, it is simple, and it is effective.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or “CBT” is Treatment involving the combination of behaviorism (based on the theories of learning) and cognitive therapy (based on the theory that our cognitions or thoughts control a large portion of our behaviors) (source: allpsych.com)

Now… am I writing this post for you first year psych students or you pseudo-psychologists of your friend group, in order to learn the details and interventions based on this long-established treatment concept? Absolutely not! Sorry, but no. I’m not going to have the energy or motivation to give a textbook version of these concepts. Because firstly it’s too much to cover here in a simple way, and secondly for those “regular” folks out there, they don’t find cognitive interventions as fascinating as the rest of us psych geeks. That being said, you geeks can stick around, because I find simplifying things to be the best way to apply them to our practice.

Let’s break down three essential components to a CBT concept I like to refer to as The ABC’s. This is a super-simple way to grasp the concepts at the core of CBT models. It is based on identifying our core beliefs (or, what we tell ourselves about any given situation). Here we go:

A-      Antecedent (Situation or Stressor)

B-      Belief (Thoughts)

C-      Consequence (Emotional or Behavioral Outcome)

Okay, now that we have this break-down to refer to; let’s get to “why does this matter for my life?”

Well, let’s begin. The beauty of applying the oversimplified concept of the ABC’s is that this is an essential formula for helping us with our emotional and behavioral issues which we may wish to change. Consider this example:

A-      (Situation) My boss sends me an email to meet him in his office after lunch to discuss something.

B-      (Thought) I assume that my work is sub-par and I am unlikable, therefore the reason he’s meeting with me must be for some negative reason.

C-      (Feelings/Behaviors) I feel low self-esteem, anxiousness and stress, I can’t concentrate all morning at work, and skip lunch due to nerves. The morning is wasted on worry about the meeting.

Now, if we want to focus our energy on what we can change, where to begin? That’s right, with our thoughts! Our thoughts – large in part- can influence our emotional and behavioral outcome. Ergo, by changing our thoughts we can change our feelings. Think about it, what we are talking about here is our perspective, our attitude, what meaning we ascribe to a certain situation. This goes beyond “glass half full” optimism or pessimism. This means identifying the thoughts and statements that we tell ourselves about a given situation, and changing them in order to feel better.

Let’s take another example, and work on changing that negative thought.

A-      (Situation) I am attending a social gathering tonight.

B-      (Thought) I believe that the party will be lame, I won’t be interested in anyone there, that my outfit is out of fashion, no one really likes me     or finds me interesting, and it’s going to be miserable.

C-      (Feelings/Behaviors) I feel anxious, nervous and worried. I arrive but barely speak to anyone, remain on the periphery of the social interactions. I don’t try the food and end up leaving early.

Now let’s change the thought (B) and see what happens…

A-      (Situation) I am attending a social gathering tonight.

B-      (Thought) I think that there will be some people there who I know, some who will be new. I say to myself that my outfit feels pretty “me” and that I’m comfortable so that’s what matters. Even though I am not sure what to expect, I’ll just go check it out and if I don’t feel like staying, I don’t have to. It might even be fun.

C-      (Feelings/Behaviors) I feel calmer, text or call a few friends to go along to the gathering together. I try some snacks and make small talk with a few friends-of-friends. I find parts of the evening I enjoy, and find it easy to “let go” of parts I don’t.  I feel proud for having an open mind and I’m having fun.

What we tell ourselves about any given situation or circumstance really does matter. It’s not as if we are going to have control over everything that happens to use or comes our way. But once the stressor presents itself (in the form of a presentation at work or a mother-in-law) we have a choice on how to react to the situation, and what we tell ourselves can help us to get through it. Remember, we look for evidence to support our beliefs. Therefore, if our beliefs are negative we are already setting ourselves up to seek the negative evidence in any given situation.

Strategies for challenging negative thoughts include positive self-talk, positive affirmations, I statements, mantras, and so on. We don’t have control over much, but once we tap into awareness of what our internal dialogue is telling us; we realize we can take steps to have control over our thoughts. The empowerment and healthy detachment that comes from this can lead to immense emotional relief, for many of my clients. Many people find that overtime they can make changes to the way they view any given scenario, and consequently experience less emotional distress.

Journal writing, and tracking of daily emotions and stressors are some typical sorts of “homework” associated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This concept based on simple building blocks described above, can stretch into many aspects and areas of life. Go ahead and continue your research online or begin working with your therapist on changing your thinking habits. It’s up to you!

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