by Tanya Rummler
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, also known as CBT, is a researched and evidence-based practice used for a variety of mental health needs such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Because our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all interconnected, changing our thoughts can lead to different emotions, resulting in different behaviors. Sometimes our emotions, while certainly real, actually do not have enough evidence to support their need to exist, yet they can wreak havoc on our thoughts and lead to unhelpful behaviors. Sometimes these behaviors lead to equally unhelpful emotions and thoughts.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
1) As 14 year old Chris walks up to a group of friends, they start laughing. If Chris thinks they are laughing at him he may feel angry, confused or embarrassed. These emotions could lead Chris to yell at these friends, or perhaps become quiet, or walk away choosing not to join the group. But instead, what if Chris thinks they just told a joke? This thought would likely lead to different emotions such as curiosity or excitement. These emotions could then lead him to inquire about their laughter, looking forward to hearing a good joke. He is now part of the group and perhaps sharing some of his own jokes. Both scenarios are initially the same but have very different endings. It was the change in thought that led to different emotions and different behaviors. CBT can examine our thoughts and help us notice patterns in thinking that may be unhelpful or inaccurate.
2) We all have beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world. These beliefs have been greatly influenced by our environment and experiences. For instance, children repeatedly told they are inadequate may unnecessarily feel too inept as adults to take on challenges even though current evidence suggests they are truly capable. But this belief can lead to an array of thoughts such as “I can’t do it,” or “What if I fail?” This may lead to withdrawing from tasks and missing out on opportunities for growth and success. CBT can help challenge beliefs that may be holding us back from living the life we want.
3) Pat stops at a fast-food restaurant to pick up dinner after a long day at work. Pat doesn’t feel this is a healthy option, but after such a long day at work doesn’t feel like cooking a healthy meal. After eating the burger and fries, Pat feels guilty and starts having thoughts riddled with self-criticism. “I’m so lazy. It’s your own fault you didn’t do better meal planning at the beginning of the week. You’ve already failed your health goal for the week!” Pat is lacking self-compassion, may be setting unrealistic goals, and is now feeling ashamed for something that one could argue does not even warrant guilt. CBT can help us reach goals without berating ourselves and instead, help us increase self-compassion and evaluate thoughts that may be causing distress.
This is just a small sampling of how CBT can be used to help increase quality of life. Something important to note about CBT, while CBT often has an emphasis on challenging and changing thoughts, CBT is not simply replacing negative thoughts with more positive thoughts. For example, if a client expresses sadness, CBT does NOT say, “Just feel happy!” Or “You should be happy because you have so much to be grateful for!” Instead, CBT helps the client understand sadness by seeking patterns in thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and belief systems that may unnecessarily be intensifying that sadness. Consequently, cognitive behavioral therapy is one approach that can be quite beneficial for an array of mental health needs and can help you or someone you love create a richer life.