What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Morning Mist in Fall at the Barn, photo by Rachael Cyrus

© Rachael Cyrus

Life isn’t always a cakewalk, but the way you respond to situations, especially negative ones, can largely determine your success and happiness. In psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy is an approach used to help better manage your thoughts and feelings so that when the going gets tough, you’re more mentally equipped to handle any bumps in the road.

When I practice a cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) approach with patients, I ask them to pay attention to their thoughts and beliefs, and how those in turn shape their behaviors. CBT requires the patient to increase their awareness of their thoughts, which may include keeping a journal. Because most of us are not aware of our moment-to-moment thoughts, we may not realize just how much they affect us. But it’s critical to get in the practice of recognizing what’s going on in our heads, because our thoughts directly influence our emotions and feelings, which in turn impact behavior.

Let’s use an example. Peggy and Olivia are co-workers at a company that has announced it will be downsizing in coming months. Peggy, who has a generally pessimistic attitude, immediately begins to suspect she’ll be let go. She becomes scared and anxious, and these negative emotions begin to affect her behavior. It gets to the point where she doesn’t even want to go to work, because it only reminds her that she’s not going to be there much longer. She starts going in late, leaving early, and calling in sick – all indications of avoidance, which, if not recognized, can become a vicious circle. When new projects are introduced at the office, she doesn’t volunteer out of fear that it will make her more visible or that failure on her part will push her out the door even faster. At home, her stress and anxiety cause her to stop working out and begin to binge eat, and maybe even to drink more alcohol, “just to calm her nerves.”

Olivia, on the other hand, takes the news as a challenge and decides to step up her game. Although she’s worried, she remains realistic and knows that she needs to prepare for either scenario: staying or being let go. Although she concedes she has no control over the situation, she’s determined to do the best work she can. She does the exact opposite of Peggy: going in early and staying late, and making sure to send her manager emails so that he knows how hard she’s working. She even volunteers for the projects that Peggy turns down. At home, she maintains her normal diet and exercise routines, but she also begins polishing her resume and starting to network, just in case.

Six months pass and both Peggy and Olivia get laid off. The difference is that Olivia is in a better position to find a new job, and she already has a few leads. Although she’s concerned, she’s been preparing for this moment. Peggy, however, feels – and probably looks – awful and hasn’t even begun her job search. She’s way behind Olivia, so she misses several opportunities to apply for jobs because she’s only just now getting her resume together.

Although keeping a realistic attitude can be easier said than done, it can also be taught. Learning to think and, ultimately, behave like Olivia is what CBT teaches. In sessions with a professional trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, you can learn to examine your thoughts and understand where these beliefs are coming from. You can also take a closer look at how you perceive yourself, which may be just the key to unlocking the origin of any negativity you may be harboring. Your psychologist will teach you ways to challenge those thoughts more realistically. Even if there is some truth to the negativity, you can learn to look at it more rationally.

The fact is, we have no control over our lives. We all make plans and have goals, but successful people are those who can better accept and respond to life’s challenges. At North Shore Behavioral Medicine, we teach people how to respond to life’s difficulties, big and small, in a healthier way. We help you to rework the way you think, so that your responding behavior will better enable you to navigate life’s trickier roads.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to be the gold standard for treating mild to moderate depression and many anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder. It is also very effective for helping people respond more effectively to life transitions and with relationship problems.

If you are struggling with any of these problems or find that you seem stuck repeatedly making the same mistakes in your life, finding a qualified psychologist who provides CBT may be just what you need to help you navigate through your problems to a more satisfying life.

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