Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is based on this foundational principle: How we think determines how we feel and how we behave.
Thought Patterns are Automatic, but Accessible
Our thinking patterns are often automatic; in other words, the way we think about a particular event or about ourselves often occurs just below the level of awareness. Unlike psychoanalytic therapy, which asserts the supremacy of the unconscious, CBT maintains that, with focus, we can become aware of our automatic thinking patterns.
Most of our thoughts are clear, logical and based in reality. For example, when I state “I am happy my cat got though surgery successfully,” I am being honest about my feelings and the successful surgery is a fact based on the Vet’s report. No problem here.
Some of our thinking is a distortion of reality. For example, Harry has a pretty satisfying relationship with his wife. One day, they have a lunch appointment and she shows up a half-hour late. Harry says “You don’t care at all about my feelings, all you care about is yourself,” [delete parenthesis]. Objectively, she has demonstrated many times in the past that she cares about him, thus his statement is a distortion of the truth. Harry’s comment illustrates a number of distortions: 1) Jumping to Conclusions by Mind Reading (he asserts he knows the reasons for his wife being late), All or Nothing Thinking (a type of black and white thinking where he believes either his wife cares about him or she doesn’t ), Mental Filtering (he is filtering through only negative information about her lateness), and Discounting the Positive (Harry does not consider her history of caring about him). It is easy to see how distorted thinking effects our self-esteem, our mood, our behavior, and our relationships.
Changing Distorted Thoughts
You can easily learn to recognize your own distorted thinking. We have a tendency to repeat the same patterns of distorted thinking which makes the identification process easier. Once identified, you can challenge yourself and replace the thoughts with ones that are realistic and more positive. This does not mean you look at life through rose-colored glasses. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy encourages you to be realistic, which means life certainly does include unfortunate and painful experiences along with happy and neutral ones.
In Harry’s case, he is more likely to feel annoyed, but cared about by his wife, if he thinks this way: “I really don’t like having to wait; my wife is usually respectful of me – before I get too bent out of shape, I’ll find out why she is late.”
Will CBT Get Rid of All My Bad Days?
Human beings naturally have some negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The aim of CBT is not to get rid of all negative experiences and reactions; the goal is to take them in stride and not be overwhelmed by them. Even if you become a world champion expert in CBT, you will still have some down moods and some bad days. Loss will still hurt and failure will still sting. But you won’t be mowed down by these challenges.
How Difficult is it to Apply CBT to My Life?
CBT is not mysterious. It is practical and learnable; as soon as you change your point of view you will feel differently. And your behavior will change too.
Sometimes you can make significant changes by reading a book on CBT. Other times, having an objective and caring guide such as a therapist, can help you navigate through this new territory. Reading a book on CBT is also a great supplement to therapy. Here are a few books I recommend:
Feeling Good, the New Mood Therapy, David Burns, M.D.
When Panic Attacks, the New Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life, David Burns, M.D.