Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy which focuses in particular on the manner in which thoughts, or cognitive processes, can produce, shape, or influence an individual’s emotional experiences. This form of psychotherapy has been proven to be efficient in treating depression, anxiety, anger, self-blame, relationship problems, and has even been shown to be effective for individuals who receive psychiatric treatment for psychosis and bipolar disorder.
Scientific studies show that cognitive behavioral therapy is at least as effective as psychiatric medication prescribed for depression and anxiety. In some cases, psychiatric treatment can even be used as an aid in cognitive behavioral therapy, as different psychiatric treatments act on regions of the brain which have been implicated in the persistence of symptoms of depression. Usually, however, it is preferable for medication to be taken in consideration only as a final solution, and only in cases where all of a treatments benefits and side-effects have been weighed. Studies have also shown that when psychiatric medication and cognitive behavioral therapy are utilized together there exists a much larger degree of effectiveness than when medication was used on its own. The chances of positive results being maintained over time are also much higher in the cases of those who took psychiatric medication together with cognitive behavioral therapy.
This form of therapy focuses on the thoughts we have in the present moment, and, using them as a starting point, gives us the chance to discover how they contribute to the emotional states we wish to change. On the other side of things, cognitive behavioral therapy also can help us find out which of our thoughts are responsible for the aspects of our personalities that we like, would wish to have, and show themselves to be useful. In this manner, producing change becomes easier because this kind of therapy bases itself on many of the personal resources that we already have and will learn to value and utilize for developing new skills.
The way in which we think influences the way in which we feel; if our thoughts are positive, they’ll result in our emotions also being positive. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps us to think and behave in an effective and rational manner. Keeping in mind that our thoughts, be they positive or negative, can contain errors, with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy we can learn how to gather evidence towards how correct or incorrect they are and figure out what we can do to adapt them to reality.
For example, when we’re depressed, our thoughts are centered in negativity, and we ignore nearly all the positive aspects of our lives. Those who suffer from depression have a negative vision regarding themselves, their present experiences, and the future. Due to a negative self image, individuals who are depressed don’t really take credit for any positive things in their lives, and they feel completely responsible for the negative results, even when the outcome wasn’t their fault. This way of thinking, in turn, creates a gloomy outlook for the future, those suffering from depression imagining an entire series of negative scenarios for it. It is easily understood that, due to this negative fixation, a depressed individual cannot really enjoy life and meets many difficulties in finding pleasure in their activities.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts that we think automatically. They appear to be plausible, a motive for which we feel the need to consider them to be true. An example of a distortion of thought is predicting the future. How often has it happened to us that we imagine, without proof, that we won’t succeed in what we set out to accomplish, that we’ll fail lamentably, or that we’ll be laughed at in a social situation? Another example of cognitive distortion is labeling, of ourselves, of other people, or of reality itself. Labeling happens when we consider a behavior (for example failure at an exam), and we extrapolate it as though it’d be the defining characteristic of who we are. When we label, we no longer think in terms of “I failed the exam”, but rather we say “I’m a failure”. A third example of distortion of thought is ignoring the positive. This happens when we prefer to consider all of our traits or our accomplishments as being insignificant, minor, or useless, while the negative about ourselves receives an exaggerated importance. Another type of automatic thinking is black and white thinking, all or nothing. This type of thought doesn’t allow us to realize the true complexity of everything, and it closes us into a very small circle in which the single choices we have are of a simplified type, good or bad, love or fear. It’s self-understood that, considering the reduced amount of choices, the chances for unhappiness rise dramatically.
Catastrophizing is also a distortion of thought and it takes place when we think that our life situation, as a whole, or only certain aspects of our lives, is unsupportable, horrible, or sinister, in place of considering it only unpleasant or unwanted.
Automatic thoughts can be quite powerful by nature, and their power grows in respect to the volume they’re repeated. The more we think them, the more significance and influence they have. It’s important to keep in mind that, regardless how credible they appear and how familiar we are with them, they aren’t one and the same with reality. They’re simply approximations of reality. We can’t figure out the true state of the matter unless we compare them with reality and collect the evidence necessary for their affirmation or rejection.
For example, when we’re depressed, we can have the following thought – “I can’t enjoy life”. How do we test this thought? A common technique in cognitive behavioral therapy is keeping a journal in which we keep track of our daily activities, after which we evaluate the level of enjoyment we experienced during each activity. In this way, we can have the pleasant surprise of discovering that, in fact, some of these activities bring us a lot of pleasure, but because we’re so centered on the thought that we cannot enjoy life, we stop paying attention to the things in our life which would have the power of invalidating this conviction.
However, cognitive behavioral therapy is much more than simple, positive thinking. In fact, it’d be more correct to say that cognitive behavioral therapy is realistic thinking, because what it actually accomplishes is to help us perceive a complete image of reality, both with the good and the bad. And when a situation really is negative, with the help of this therapy we can learn how to generate alternative solutions for resolving our problems and how to select the one that fits the majority of our needs.
Often in the face of a crisis situation we remain paralyzed and are no longer capable of finding functional solutions for our problems. This owes itself to the catastrophizing mentioned earlier. How many times has it happened that, after passing through a difficult situation, we manage to find solutions that we never would have thought of during the crisis? When we’re calm and relaxed we’re much more effective in finding solutions. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps us assimilate as much as possible from this favorable, internal state of being in order to recreate it during crisis situations.
In order to become even more aware of the imprint that our automated thoughts leave on us, it’s also useful to think about the costs and benefits that result from them. It’s possible to not wish to set aside a certain kind of negative thinking because it motivates us to act. It’s easy to understand why someone wouldn’t want to renounce their source of motivation. At the same time, however, due to negative thinking we can feel desperate and exhausted, something which doesn’t work in favor of our initial intention of being efficient and motivated. In this case, cognitive behavioral therapy teaches us how to obtain the same benefits we don’t wish to give up without the need for them to depend on self-destructive thinking.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is useful not only throughout the duration of the therapy sessions but also afterwards, because they give us a new way of being and thinking which help us to adapt to new situations, being more confident in our own power and with more enthusiasm and zest for life.