Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often praised as one of the most effective treatments for depression and anxiety, but why? What makes it so powerful?
In this article, we’ll examine what CBT looks like in practice, break down its mechanisms, and show you how changing your conscious thinking process can have a profound effect on your well-being.
Let’s dive in.
What CBT Is In Essence
CBT is not about forcing negative thoughts out of your head. It’s about changing how you respond to negative thoughts and impulses.
It’s about taking the thoughts and beliefs that bring you the most trouble and testing them against reality.
In the same sense that a person can have a grandiose, self-aggrandizing vision of themselves, a person can have an overly negative vision of themselves that does not stack up against the truth. With CBT, you learn to identify and challenge these negative beliefs.
You can use CBT to work on things like…
- Boosting your self-esteem.
- Gaining a stronger sense of control and perspective over your stress and anxiety.
- Developing positive thinking patterns.
- Dealing with addictions.
- Dealing with issues that arise in relationships.
There is abundant proof that CBT produces real results. According to the American Psychological Association:
“It is important to emphasize that advances in CBT have been made on the basis of both research and clinical practice. Indeed, CBT is an approach for which there is ample scientific evidence that the methods that have been developed actually produce change.”
What CBT looks like is behavior modification, often in the form of…
- Using problem-solving skills to cope with difficult life situations.
- Leaning into the things that scare you instead of avoiding them.
- Practicing new methods of addressing your emotions and self-soothing when things become difficult.
- Utilizing role-playing to prepare you for situations you may encounter in the real world.
Using CBT, you learn to be your own therapist.
Let’s look at a few examples of what CBT looks like in practice:
What CBT Can Do (Behavior Modification)
Specifically, CBT is “mental” behavior modification. To gain a new sense of well-being, security, and confidence, one must first change how they view themselves and their problems.
Negative life experiences, traumas, or past relationships give our minds filters on the world that may distort what we see. These filters are called cognitive distortions.
Here are some examples of cognitive distortions:
- Personalization: Everything is my fault.
- Blaming: Nothing is my fault.
- Disqualifying the positive: My accomplishments are only a result of luck and not merit.
- All or Nothing Thinking: I’m always so awkward (ignoring every example of you being social).
- Catastrophizing: If I make one mistake I’ll lose my job and become homeless.
Here’s how CBT can be used to shed light on cognitive distortions and ground us in reality:
Example # 1
“My boss hates me.”
Say you’re working at a new job, and you’re eager to prove yourself. You’re getting trained, meeting coworkers, forming connections, showing up on time, and committing to your new position.
Time goes by, and your boss asks you to start working independently. You remember your training, and you do the best you can.
Your boss reports back to you on the results of your work and it turns out you made some mistakes. They roll their eyes at you and criticize your performance.
Automatic Emotional Response: My boss hates me now. I’m doing so poorly. I”m not going to be able to keep my job. I’m so bad at this. I thought I was doing well. I’ll never recover.
CBT Response Examples:
- Take stock of everything you’ve done correctly so far. Find evidence both for and against your emotional response.
- Consider that your boss might just be having a bad day and that their response to you is not personal.
- Realize that mistakes are how you learn, forgive yourself, and commit to doing better next time.
- Realize that nothing happened that cannot be fixed.
- Choose to feel good about how committed you are to the job and how much effort you’ve been putting in.
Example # 2
“This depression will never end.”
You’re caught in depression. You are having thoughts about being a failure, and you feel that it is too late for you to change. You think everyone in your life is fed up with you. It’s getting harder to get out of bed in the morning. Your self-esteem is low.
CBT Response Examples:
- Identify the frequent negative thoughts you’re having and test their validity — Is there any real evidence of people being fed up with you? Is there any evidence that people like you?
- Consider all of the other difficult periods of your life that you have survived and made it through already.
- Challenge the idea that it is too late for you to change. As long as you’re breathing, your story is not over.
- Listen to your feelings and meditate on the root cause of your depression. Lean into a personal pain you might be avoiding.
- Choose to nurture yourself in these difficult moments instead of letting the heavy self-criticism dictate how you feel.
Example # 3
“They’ll never want to go out with me.”
Say you want to ask out someone you know from school, but you don’t know how it’s going to go. One day, you get the opportunity after class, but you hesitate.
Automatic Emotional Response: “This isn’t going to work. They don’t like me like that. No one wants to see me dating them. They would never be into me. I can’t do this.
CBT Response Examples:
- Recognize your good qualities, and take stock of why someone would want to date you.
- Realize how approaching someone and risking rejection would build your courage, regardless of the outcome.
- Recognize that you will survive if they say no, even if it hurts in the moment.
- Recognize that you aren’t a mind reader and that there is no way to know how they’ll respond until you try.
- Recognize that there is a possibility that they will say yes, and that that could potentially change your life in the best way.
As a Man Thinketh…
There is immense power in changing how you think, and that’s what CBT teaches you to do.
It teaches you to listen to and observe and have a dialogue with your worst fears and assumptions so that you can finally overcome their grip on you.
If you can learn to master your thoughts and emotions in this way, you’ll be on your way to more joy, confidence, and well-being.