This article explains the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in a practical way. When you’ve read it, you’ll understand the basics of this powerful happiness and personal development tool.
What is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a form of active psychotherapy. Guided by empirical research, CBT focuses upon the development of coping mechanisms aimed at solving relevant problems and altering useless cognitive patterns. Cognition refers to thoughts, convictions, behaviour, and emotions.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy consists of two forms of psychotherapy: behavioural therapy, and cognitive therapy. Behavioural therapy primarily concerns the analysis and alteration of behaviour. A person’s mannerisms and actions are very telling about how their thought processes work. Cognitive therapy emphasises how we think, particularly with regards to the key role that emotions play as part of the thought process.
An anxious person for example, might be convinced that everything is going to end badly today. These negative thoughts cause difficulties with focusing, with only negative things being noticed. Thoughts and actions which might undermine these negative thought processes are automatically blocked out and avoided. The day turning out to not have had anything particularly negative about it at all may actually generate even greater anxiety. These negative thought patterns can generate a powerful feedback loop, locking the subject into a cruel, self-perpetuating vicious cycle of fear.
A combination of these two forms of therapy has proven a formula for success in the treatment of a wide range of mental disorders. As early as 100 AD, Stoic Philosophers in particular identified fundamental aspects of contemporary CBT. Epictetus, for instance, believed that logic could be used to identify and subsequently ignore false beliefs that could in turn lead to destructive emotions. Later, Aaron T. Beck would write the original handbook for depression.
Frequently occurring cognitive errors and their associated dysfunctional presuppositions
Cognitive Behavioural therapists believe that humans can adjust their thinking. This cognitive restructuring is often carried out by psychotherapists, aiding the client in converting the thoughts which make them anxious or otherwise upset, into helpful thoughts. Those suffering from such instances of irrationally negative thought spirals frequently have to contend with relationship struggles, communicative issues, and the consequences of unhealthy choices. Whether it concerns personal happiness or success, the recognition and replacement of inaccurate thoughts is key. From David Burns’ book, ‘Feeling Good: New Mood therapy divides the most frequently occurring thought errors into 10 categories:
1. Unrealistic ideals
People have been comparing themselves to others since the dawn of man. As effective a means as this might be for personal development and self-motivation, it more often leads to a problematic, demoralising mindset. People are inclined to make unreasonable, unfair comparisons between themselves and others, losing sight of their personal path to success. An effect exacerbated by the dawn of social media.
Irrespective of evidence to the contrary, we very often perceive the world to revolve around ourselves. Personalisation is a cognitive disturbance that causes the subject to perceive everything others say and do to be a direct, personal reaction to them. Case in point: John calls his friend Steve, Steve doesn’t pick up. John’s immediate thoughts become filled with anxiety that Steve is mad or has suddenly grown to hate him. What really happened was that Steve was helping an old lady cross a busy street.
By constantly internalising negative events, the subject feels personally responsible for negative things that occur. The subject will perceive themselves as the locus of external negative events, without ever questioning whether or not any other factors might have played a key part.
3. All or nothing
An all-or-nothing mentality is a negative thought process and cognitive distortion, frequently manifesting in individuals with anxiety or depression. Extreme, binary thought processes, also referred to as thinking in black and white, frequently overlap with words such as never, or every. At the office, this may manifest in the categorisation of every project as either a success, or a failure. There is no middle ground between success and failure for someone thinking in terms of black and white, despite the shades of grey actually being vital.
Overgeneralisation occurs when a single incident or piece of evidence is used to draw overall conclusions. Subjects might take singular, unpleasant events, as parts of an infinite pattern of loss. Rejection during a job interview may convince the subject that they are doomed to eternal unemployment. The subject will become ever more hopeless, opening the door to other cognitive distortions. Healthy people and worldviews are also heavily warped by this effect. After a negative experience with an individual from an ethnic group, some people make sweeping generalisations of the entire ethnic group.
5. Filtering out the positive
Those suffering from anxiety disorders employ their mental filters to purge their life of all pleasant, satisfying thoughts. They will fixate on shortcomings and dissatisfaction, frequently displaying avoidance behaviour, which exacerbate their feelings of isolation. Anxiety levels keep rising since all positive experiences are filtered out, leaving room only for increasingly amplified, self-destructive thoughts. Should nine good things and one bad thing happen, the bad will be the sole focus.
6. Reading thoughts
In moderation, reading thoughts can be a very helpful skill to have. Sadly, it more often drives people to despair. How someone feels about something might be discerned by reading certain instances of body language, during a conversation, for example. Someone might slacken their jaw when surprised for example or raise their eyebrows when they have concerns. Reading too deeply into things however, can give way to problematic misunderstandings. For example, someone might be dining in a restaurant alone, and think that other diners consider them lonely and pitiful. A student answering a teacher’s question in class incorrectly might be convinced that the other students think he/she is dumb. Guessing the perceptions of others is frequently inaccurate and detrimental to one’s self-image.
7. Catastrophising (PCS)
Catastrophising entails an exaggeration of trifling occurrences. Even if this ostensibly innocuous event hasn’t even happened yet, the subject may predict a negative outcome, automatically proceeding on the assumption that a catastrophic conclusion is inevitable. Someone that fails to meet their financial goals could automatically assume they’ll go bankrupt.
8. Emotional reasoning
People tend to take their experiences and feelings as truth. If someone feels dumb, or stupid, surely this must be true. However, emotions aren’t always grounded in reality, even if one thinks that their feelings are completely rational. It’s essential to recognise that, just like thoughts, emotions aren’t always based on facts.
Labelling is a cognitive distortion characterised by the subject generalising a person based on a single trait that the subject has attributed to them. ‘He’s a failure because he failed the test’, or: ‘he just walked ignored a red light, so he probably breaks the law regularly’. By labelling someone, they will be exclusively perceived in accordance with the label attached to them. All information that doesn’t fit the label, will be disregarded.
Even though seeing the future is impossible, some people try to do so anyway. Prophecy is a cognitive distortion in which the subject will predict a negative outcome without accounting for the realistic chances of said outcome coming to pass. Prophecies tend to be made by people with feelings of anxiety or depression, often resulting in feelings of insecurity. Before a job interview has even started, one might already be proceeding on the assumption that the interview will be a bust, without any grounds for such fears.
Techniques in cognitive behavioural therapy
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a lot more than just sitting down and talking about what springs to mind at the time. A structured approach ensures that the therapist and their client can make a guided effort towards reaching the goals of each session. As a result, time with the therapist is productively spent, featuring many CBT techniques such as:
- Keeping track of thoughts, ideas, and experiences in a logbook
- Exchanging and discussing particular beliefs
- Social, physical, and cognitive exercises
- Homework such as reading and writing assignments, or social experiments such as engaging passers-by on the street in conversation
Advantages of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been proven to be effective in the treatment of myriad psychological disorders. Aside from depressions or anxiety disorders, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can also aid in the treatment of:
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Eating Disorders (anorexia and bulimia)
- Alcohol abuse related sleeping disorders
Additionally, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can also aid in coping with symptoms of:
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Now it is your turn
What do you think? Do you recognise this explanation of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the frequently occurring cognitive distortions? What do you believe to be contributing factors to a healthy state of mind? What do you feel aids in focusing, and in creating a healthy self-image?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Burns, D. D., & Beck, A. T. (1999). Feeling good: The new mood therapy (p. 738). New York: Avon.
- Butler, A. C., Chapman, J. E., Forman, E. M., & Beck, A. T. (2006). The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses. Clinical psychology review, 26(1), 17-31.
- Beck, J. S., & Carlson, J. (2006). Cognitive therapy (p. 474). American Psychological Association.
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