One of the main things I learned when I did my degree in psychology, other than how to ‘strawpedo’ WKD, was that seeing a therapist isn’t necessarily what you expect it to be. If you have visions of lying back on a couch with someone sitting on a chair talking to you, then you’re probably going to be shocked when you actually go to a psychologist and find that none of that’s involved.
Of course sometimes that is involved, and this is still a legitimate form of psychology, it’s just that it’s only one competing option among various different ‘schools’ of psychology and one of the less commonly used ones these days. This image is of ‘psychodynamic psychology’, whereas you will be more likely to see a ‘cognitive behavioural therapist’ for most issues today.
And there are many reasons that CBT is so popular. For one, it is proven to be highly effective in treating things like anxiety disorders and phobias in a short amount of time. At the same time it’s also popular for being relatively easy to apply and cheap to run. And in fact, once you understand the principles of CBT you can use it yourself without the help of a therapist in order to overcome a range of problems and to generally improve yourself so that you can get more out of life.
Here we will look at what CBT is, how it’s different from other schools of psychology and how you can use it yourself.
A Modern Approach
The psychodynamic approach that is so ingrained in popular culture was notable for being the first ever ‘talking cure’ and introducing many ideas we now accept as given – such as the concept of the ‘unconscious’ mind and of repression. At the same time though it also has its opponents as it involves talking at great length about events that happened in your childhood and how they might be affecting your current behaviour – and it almost always links back to sexual impulses (the infamous ‘Oedipus complex’ comes from psychodynamic theory). While this might be useful for uncovering deep issues that are influencing us in ways we don’t understand necessarily, it also means going through an emotionally traumatizing experience to understand what might be a more simple problem. Not everyone has the time or inclination to talk about how their father didn’t show them enough love when they want to be treated for a phobia of water – and for addressing such issues it isn’t known to be particularly effective.
Thus many more fields of psychology were born. Behavioural psychology was one such school which boiled the human mind down to being based on a series of learned impulses, but ultimately this was found to be useful for making scientific predictions but ultimately lacking an element.
To illustrate, if you did have a phobia of water then a strictly behavioural approach would presume that you at some point had a bad experience that caused water to become associated with fear or pain in your mind. If you add the cognitive component though then this would look at how that event could even be imagined in the first place, or then subsequently reinforced with worries and illogical thoughts ‘if I go near water I’ll fall in’. A behaviourist would try and treat this problem by building new associations (feeding you sweets while taking you closer to the water’s edge) whereas a cognitive behavioural therapist might do this in conjunction with getting you to change your thought patterns – by using positive affirmations to convince yourself water is harmless ‘I won’t fall in because I’m in complete control’, ‘If I did fall in, I could easily get to safety or call for help’.
A More Flexible Approach
Part of the benefit of cognitive behavioural therapy is its versatility, and this is a school of psychology that can easily be applied to a range of situations that other methods can’t really touch. For instance if you find yourself struggling to speak in public, then you can use CBT to convince yourself not to be afraid, but likewise if you struggle to get out of bed in the morning then CBT can again come in handy by using affirmations and other techniques to help you get up and even if you have just general confidence issues or stress then CBT can give you the tools to help.
CBT is about looking for the negative thought patterns that we have that are causing maladaptive behaviour, and then replacing these with more positive thoughts – and this is something you can easily do at home yourself.
How it Works
If you see a cognitive behavioural therapist, then usually your session will start by looking at the thoughts that you normally have that are causing you problems. One method of accomplishing this is to use a technique called ‘mindfulness’ where you just let your thoughts flow as they normally would without trying to control them, but then just ‘observe’ them as they do (this has been described as being similar to watching ‘clouds’ float by overhead). Then, each time you notice a very negative thought that crops up repeatedly you make a note of it and start to do something about it. Another way to identify your thoughts is to simply keep a diary throughout the day of negative thoughts as they arise – and often this can be set as ‘homework’ when you see a therapist.
Next you need to try to alter these thought patterns in order to ‘convince’ yourself they don’t hold any power over you. One common method here is to use positive affirmations which are positive phrases you repeat over and over to change your behaviour or beliefs. This could be ‘it doesn’t matter if I stutter’ when speaking in public, ‘I have every reason to be confident’ to improve your self-esteem, or it could be ‘I don’t enjoy cake’ to help you lose weight. While repeating a phrase over and over might not seem like it could really change your beliefs or behaviours in a real way, but the point is that it will ‘drown out’ the negative ruminations, and furthermore eventually they can become a habit in the same way that the negative thoughts once were so that you start to think those positive things automatically.
Another strategy you can use is to test your negative beliefs to disprove them. When I was learning to drive for instance I used to always stall at the lights because the pressure was so great and I thought everyone would start shouting and honking if I prevented them from getting on their way. Of course it was my own negative thoughts that were actually causing me to stall – so when my driving instructor forced me to sit still the whole time the light was green (cringe!) and there were no bad repercussions, suddenly I stopped stalling. Similarly if someone is very nervous about social interactions there are few better things they can do than to throw themselves into the deep end by going to parties or giving speeches – even choking on purpose – in order to learn that people are supportive and it really doesn’t matter if you make an idiot of yourself. And if you struggle to put yourself out there then you can always use ‘cognitive simulation’ to just ‘imagine’ realistically what would happen in the worst case scenario, or if it’s a negative belief you’re trying to change you can just list evidence to the contrary or ask others what they think. Meanwhile just thinking logically about your false beliefs and how unhelpful and inaccurate they are can also help – simply acknowledging you’re in control can be very empowering.
The point is that you are trying to alter your beliefs and your thought patterns and thereby shape your mental health almost like programming a computer – the means here being less important than the end. If you look at the power that a placebo can have in treating all kinds of psychological and psychosomatic conditions this demonstrates just how much changing our beliefs can bring about positive change. This is just a way to cause those changes without the sugar pill.