Cognitive behavioral therapy, or ‘CBT’, is an approach to therapy that aims to improve the mental health of patients as an alternative to other approaches such as psychotherapy or behavioral therapy. Sessions will involve a patient speaking to a therapist who helps them to come to terms with issues like anxiety disorders, phobias, depression etc. but the approach is different from certain other schools.
Today cognitive behavioral therapy is arguably the most popular psychotherapeutic approach and the one favored by organizations such as the NHS. Partly this is due to the various studies that support its effectiveness in treating the conditions it aims to address (1, 2, 3). Better yet, it’s also very popular for being fast, cheap and versatile. While an approach like psychotherapy requires a patient to have many lengthy and emotionally taxing sessions, CBT teaches the patient a number of skills that they can use themselves in order to address their problems and see benefits. In fact, CBT can even be effective over e-mail.
What this means is that you can use cognitive behavioral therapy on yourself in order to address a number of mental health problems and to help yourself to overcome problems at your convenience.
But while CBT is very useful for helping treat mental disorders, it might also be of interest to a wider audience and could have a range of other benefits – helping to improve performance, productivity, concentration, mood and more.
How CBT Works
To understand the potential wider benefits of CBT, we first need to understand what it is and how it works.
Essentially then, CBT looks at the human mind almost as a computer and views our ‘thoughts’ as the programming. If you are constantly thinking positive things like ‘I can do it’ or ‘it’s all going to turn out okay’, then this will stimulate the production of more positive neurotransmitters and hormones resulting in a better mood and more energy. On the other hand though, thinking negative things like ‘I’m useless’ will cause negative changes in your brain ultimately negatively affecting your mood, your self-esteem and other measures of mental health.
Over time these thoughts can become habitual, such that you are no longer consciously thinking them but believing them as ‘truths’ that define your mental health.
CBT then looks to address this problem using a set of teachable skills. These include mindfulness, cognitive restructuring, journal writing and hypothesis testing. These work as follows:
Mindfulness is like a form of meditation that involves listening to the contents of your own thoughts. Unlike some other forms of meditation, the aim is not to try and ’empty’ your head, but rather simply to listen to your own thoughts and to identify them. This is often described as ‘watching’ them ‘pass by’ like clouds.
The aim of this practice then is to help you to spot which thoughts are potentially leading to negative feelings. For instance if you find that you are telling yourself you’re ‘stupid’ then you can at least be aware of this and then start using a positive affirmation in order to combat that suggestion.
Journal writing is similar to mindfulness and could almost be considered posthumous mindfulness. The idea here is that you write a journal in the evening where you talk about the thoughts you had that day and how they affected your general mental state. Again, the objective is to look for trends with the eventual hope of being able to identify the thought processes etc. that negatively impact your sense of well-being and your mental health.
Many of our negative thought patterns are essentially ‘statements’ about us or about the world which we unfortunately believe. One of the easiest ways to stop believing these damaging statements though is to simply test the hypothesis.
So for instance, if you believe that you can’t speak up in a group or everyone will laugh at you, then hypothesis testing would involve trying to speak up in a group and then seeing that in fact nobody does of course laugh at you.
Perhaps the most important part of cognitive behavioral therapy is ‘cognitive restructuring’ which is where you go about systematically convincing yourself that these previously held beliefs are false and great new beliefs. For instance, this means convincing yourself that you are a confident and social person until the point where this becomes your reality. One tool you have to help you accomplish this is the positive affirmation, which is a positive statement you can repeat over and over in order to eventually get it to ‘sink in’ and become your ‘default’ belief.
How You Can Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Your Life
Essentially then, cognitive behavioral therapy allows us to identify flaws in our thinking and then to fix them – almost ‘reprogramming’ our brains. If you find yourself depressed, if you have a phobia, or if you may be schizophrenic then you might be advised to see a cognitive behavioral therapist and they should be able to help you address these issues in the way outlined.
But if you don’t have any of these problems then you can still ‘reprogram’ yourself to be better in other ways.
In one study, it was found that by using cognitive behavioral therapy to improve the mood of workers in an office, productivity could actually be increased (4).
Here though the subjects were still considered ‘depressed’ to begin with. But what about using CBT to go one step further and to take them better than average? If you know for instance that it doesn’t pay to stress about money, then you could use CBT to stop yourself from worrying for no reason. You can also use CBT to switch off and to forget about your troubles generally. Imagine being able to come home from work and to completely stop worrying about anything so that you can focus 100% on your family. With CBT that might just be possible and the point is that rather than using CBT just to take us to a point of being ‘normal’, it could be seen as a way to ‘train’ our psychological well-being to the point of being above average.
Likewise, if you have issues getting yourself to work more effectively, then you could use CBT to help yourself overcome procrastination (5). We already know that CBT can be useful for helping people to diet and similarly if you keep using the same excuses not to exercise, you could use CBT to stop yourself from doing that.
In conclusion, CBT is a tool that everyone should learn and that can be useful for helping anyone to become more effective, more disciplined and happier – it has uses beyond treating mental health problems.