What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

October 06, 2021

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

A research project sponsored by Dove Soap recently had people describe themselves to an artist and then had a stranger describe the same person. The difference in the drawings were remarkable. The self-described drawings accentuated any flaw while the stranger’s drawing accentuated the person’s beauty. The project is just one that shows how so many of us default to negative or self-critical thinking.

Who hasn’t found themselves thinking negative thoughts about themselves, others, or even everything going on in the world? In a pandemic it can seem natural to think that way. Yet, sometimes negative thinking patterns, can skew the way you see your life, yourself, and your surroundings. Sometimes these thinking patterns can be downright unhealthy.

If your mind is habitually telling you negative things, you start to believe them as fact. Challenging those negative beliefs can be tough, especially if this has been a thought pattern for years.

This is the basis for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. As a counselor and cognitive behavioral therapist at JF&CS, Sarah French has practiced this type of methodology for years. “CBT is very popular and well-known today because it’s been around a long time, its effective, and there has been a lot of evidence-based research on it,” says Sarah. Whether you have a mental health diagnosis or just feel like negative thoughts weigh on you, CBT can help.

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works

“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy identifies unhealthy thoughts and thinking patterns so we can challenge them and train the brain to think differently. As you change your thought patterns it becomes more automatic to default to healthier thinking patterns,” says Sarah. By changing your thinking habits, you can improve your emotional state and guide yourself toward healthier behaviors. “Step one is to recognize your go-to thoughts. We call those thoughts automatic thoughts. And obviously the goal is to have more healthy automatic thoughts than unhealthy automatic thoughts.”

With cognitive behavioral therapy the therapist works to show the person those unhealthy thoughts. “You may walk down the hall and you try to make eye contact with a friend. But your friend just glances down and doesn’t acknowledge you,” describes Sarah as an example. “You have a choice as to how you interpret that. There are different thought patterns that show different choices. You might think that your friend probably didn’t see you and you’ll just say hello later. Or someone could tell themselves that ‘they must hate me. I’m not good enough for them to even acknowledge.’ Those are two different interpretations of the situation. Who knows what the truth is? It doesn’t even matter what the truth is. What matters is the interpretation of it and the emotions and behaviors that follow those thoughts.” Many unhealthy thoughts are based on suspicion, speculation or inferences that might not actually be factual. These thoughts then can then spiral causing even worse unhealthy thoughts.

“A good test to give someone is to ask whether their thinking is helpful or unhelpful. And it’s probably not helpful if you’re telling yourself that this person hates me, I’m not worth their time, I must be worthless.”

Sarah often uses worksheets to explore a person’s thinking patterns. She can show her clients all the different types of unhealthy thinking styles. “But it is really hard for people to change those thinking patterns. Usually, an automatic thought is automatic because it’s been in your head for a really long time. You can’t snap your fingers and think differently. You need a counselor to help you challenge it,” says Sarah. There is another worksheet that Sarah uses with her clients that allows people to look more objectively at their thinking.

Sarah uses the worksheet to look at the situation where the thought occurred. They then rate how strongly the person believes that thought. Many at first might believe the thought 100%. They also explore how that thought makes the person feel—sad or happy, worthless, or valued, respected or insignificant, etc.

The therapist then questions the thought. What is the evidence for the thought being correct or incorrect? What is the context for the thought? Is the source for the thought reliable? Could the thought be an oversimplification of the situation?

“It’s like we’re in a court of law presenting a case to a jury,” says Sarah. “Would they say, ‘there’s no evidence for this thought’ or ‘yes there is evidence to support that thought.’ Typically, there is evidence for and against the thought being true. We usually find more evidence against it though. And even if the statement is true, it still might not be true to the same degree they originally thought.”

Healthy Thinking

Once the client challenges their thoughts, the therapist asks that client to come up with an alternative. Is there a thought about the situation that is more helpful now that they have really dissected the situation? The therapist then might ask how much they now believe the new, healthier alternative compared to the old, unhealthy thought. “There is usually quite a change in how much the person believes the old thought,” says Sarah. “They might have believed the unhealthy thought 100% before but now, it’s only 25%. So, there’s always some degree of success. They may no longer believe that everyone hates them, or they can’t do anything right because they believe the new, alternative thought too.”

It’s not an immediate process though. It takes a while to retrain your mind. If the person does the process over and over, both in the sessions and away from them, they begin to change their thinking patterns. “If you really want CBT to be successful, you have to do the work and homework,” says Sarah. The more you practice cognitive behavioral therapy the more can question unhealthy notions on your own. It’s recommended that someone do 12-18 sessions to start, but eventually your mind just does it for you and you may just need maintenance visits to help the process along.

Who Can Benefit From Cognitive Behavioral Theory

Everyone’s needs are different. However, evidence shows that cognitive behavioral therapy has helped a wide variety of mental health issues. People suffering from depression, anxiety, phobias, and trauma have found CBT helpful. Yet, the list of symptoms it can help goes way beyond those three diagnoses.

Cognitive behavioral therapy especially appeals to those that appreciate an analytical or intellectual approach. Many clients love CBT because you take such an active role in the process. It offers these participants tools to learn more about themselves and dive into their thoughts.

JF&CS offers cognitive behavioral treatment for all types of clients struggling with anxiety, mood disorders, low self-esteem, trauma, and several other concerns. Our trained therapists understand how difficult it is to break free from these challenges on your own. Reach out to us to learn more about CBT or speak with a therapist.