I’ve Heard a Lot About CBT. How Do I Begin to Improve My Mental Health Through Good Thinking?
By Traci Baxendale Ball
I recently attended a conference in Grand Rapids, MI. During one of the sessions, the presenter emphatically stated that CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) doesn’t work. It was hard for me to take him seriously after that. I thought about thousands of my own clients who have recovered with this evidence-based approach over the years. I felt sad and angry for the writers, researchers and trailblazers that dedicated their lives to what has undoubtedly been a major boon to the mental health of our nation. I wondered what David Burns and Albert Ellis would say to this speaker.
This kind of professional posturing is representative of the in-fighting that happens as techniques or paradigms fight for top dog. Healthy competition advances our field but I think this can be achieved without alienating one approach over another. The general public has a difficult time keeping up with the acronyms that promise better mental health. CBT, REBT, DBT, EMDR, MI, EFT are some of the most recognized. In the quarter of a century I’ve been practicing I understand there will always be a new shiny tool in our toolkit, but it doesn’t negate the use of the trusty old hammer. CBT is one hell of a reliable old tool. Read on to find out more!
CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s an evidenced-based practice that really helps with anxiety, addiction, stress, and depression. It can be applied to any mental health issue you are facing. Even if you are not anxious or depressed on a certain day, CBT helps you to identify unhelpful or negative thought patterns and themes so that you can create more neutral or helpful thoughts. It’s not really about ‘thinking positive’. It is about dealing with the reality of your situation in a way that’s kind to yourself. CBT doesn’t change the world or what’s getting to you, but it changes your inner world. Stress and bad stuff are still going to happen. You cannot control what others do or the challenges life throws at you. What you can change is your response. CBT helps you understand that you have control of your mind, your actions, and ultimately the path of your life.
Practicing CBT calls for you to notice the negative self-talk, ‘tapes’, or ‘scripts’ that play in your head. CBT helps you recognize how bad the negative self-talk makes you feel, assisting you in transforming those automatically negative scripts into a kinder dialog!
But wait, where do negative thoughts come from?
Generally speaking, negative thoughts are an offshoot of a deeper layer of beliefs. Thoughts bounce up to your conscious mind as a result of these beliefs. Beliefs are created constantly throughout your life and seem to be a product of temperament, the family of origin, lived experience, trauma, suffering, etc. When you get stressed, off balance, depressed, or anxious, negative beliefs and thoughts are amplified. Every experience in your inner and outer world goes through these negative filters. You might get stuck in negative thought patterns that repeat over and over.
What are some common negative thoughts that you might notice?
- “This is never going to be different.”
- “This will always be this way.”
- “I don’t want to live.”
- “I can’t do this anymore.”
- “I should …”
- “I’m sick.”
- “Everyone hates me.”
- “This is my fault.”
- “I’m weird.”
- “I’m not good enough.”
CBT is about noticing these distortions and creating a different language in your head that is more like this:
- “Nothing is permanent. This is temporary.”
- “Things change over time.”
- “I can do this today. I will focus on right now.’
- “I’m working toward this.”
- “I am needed.”
- “I can ask for help.”
- “I’m doing my best.”
- “What I’m doing is the best that I can.”
- “There are people that care about me.”
- “I’m in charge of this.”
Cognitive distortions (another way to describe negative thoughts) are simply ways that your mind convinces you of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts reinforce a pessimistic, hopeless, and fear-based mindset. They serve to keep you feeling bad about yourself. Research indicates that when using mindfulness (awareness) and CBT, you can begin to form new thought pathways in 6 – 8 weeks. With practice over a 6–12 month period, you will notice that the distorted negative thoughts are far less powerful. The negative thoughts influence you to a lesser degree, even though they are still there. Over time, you believe them less and begin to create new beliefs.
How do I start creating healthy thought patterns?
A 3-step process yields solid results. You must first recognize the thoughts, then breathe through them, giving your mind time to organize and finally reframe. Reframing involves talking back to yourself in a way you would maybe talk to a friend expressing the same negativity. This simple diagram below shows you how:
POWER TRIO FOR FEELING GOOD
- Breath Work
- Thought Change (CBT)
The ‘behavioral’ part of CBT is two-fold. By thinking helpful thoughts, your behaviors will be different. Also, a new set of healthy behaviors elicits healthy thought patterns. The only way to strengthen healthy thought patterns is to practice. Beginners need to practice using a thought log. This can be a formal thought log, examples of which are plentiful online, or a simple daily journal.
In summary, the basics of CBT are as follows:
- Notice unhelpful thoughts (mindfulness).
- Breathe through (pace yourself).
- Pay attention to the language of the thought you want to change.
- Review the evidence for the thought.
- Furthermore, is the thought actually helpful?
- Suggest a reframe to yourself and repeat until the negative thought softens.
- Pin your new thought or belief to your mind’s eye!
- Act into the new thought, make decisions based on helpful thinking.
- Practice makes perfect!
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Traci Baxendale Ball, LMSW, CAADC is the founder of Vibrant Health Company. Ask the expert. Email us with your questions. Want Traci to speak at your next event? Use the contact us tab on this website: Vibrant Health Company. See all of her free self-help articles. Follow us on Facebook @vibranthealthcompany #vibranthealthcompany #mentalhealthhack #stigmasmash #freeselfhelp #mentalhealthrx