In this post, we're going to talk about what to DO with these shoulds, absolutes, and other negative thought patterns that get in our way. CBT is, as I've mentioned, a very flexible orientation, and there are many systems of therapy that are based in CBT concepts (like DBT, for example.) So, instead of going into a whole lot of specific techniques based in one system, I'm going to touch on some general techniques that you'll find a lot of CBT therapists using. I've mentioned a few of them in the first post, but I'll review those here again.
One thing I mentioned in the first CBT post bears repeating again: this is NOT a "quick fix" solution to problems. These techniques, and change itself require commitment to practicing the techniques and to changing the way you think and interpret things. This takes time, and does not happen overnight. CBT has been accused also of being a feel-good way of saying that if you think happy you'll be happy. While this criticism has some merit, it's just not that simple. CBT does assert that if you change the way you think, you'll likely feel somewhat better, but does not promise results (like any therapy) and is way more complex than the simple "if you think better you'll feel better" platitude.
Ok - on to the nuts and bolts again. When you're involved in doing CBT or going through one of the many CBT-based workbooks you can find in the self-help section, you will see that there are many commonalities. First, you are likely to be asked to either talk about what the problem is (to help the therapist understand your interpretations and perceptions as well as your thought patterns) and/or fill out some paper-pen type questionnaires (called "inventories" in the clinical field.). These inventories will ask about a variety of symptoms (to help therapist or you get a handle on what's going on.) For example, if you come in thinking or feeling depressed, you might be given something called the "BDI" (Beck Depression Inventory - guess who developed that? ) This questionnaire asks you to rate the severity of common depressive symptoms that you might be experiencing. There are other inventories and symptom checklists that are useful as well. Well and good, so when do we get to the CBT stuff?
A-ha...remember the "B" part of CBT? That stands for "behavior" - in order to work well here, your therapist (or you, if you're working in a workbook) needs to know what you're experiencing and doing, as well as what you're thinking. There really is a reason behind the stuff we do - promise! How we act often reflects the way we're thinking - we interpret things, we feel an emotion related to the interpretation, and we act based on the interpretation and the emotion. Ok...so you've filled out the inventories, done all the paper work, described the situations and what you've been feeling - now what? That's where the "behavior" part - what we do - comes in. A lot of the "homework" and activities in CBT is, quite frankly, behavioral.
Here's where the workbooks and being in therapy differ some. The workbooks will go straight into the things that we typically call "homework," where a therapist will explore the situations more in-depth, provide support, and help you see and work with the stuff that brought you in. This is why I really recommend therapy (ok - I'm biased, too - I admit it). The workbooks can be really valuable resources; I use them myself as part of the work I do with clients sometimes. I've recommended them to clients, and I use them in session, when appropriate - they make my job easier because I don't have to reinvent the wheel here in terms of homework. BUT, they don't provide you with that ongoing sense of support and empathy that you get with a well-trained therapist. It's a choice you make, though.
When you're working with a therapist, the therapist will help you identify the thought patterns that are getting in the way for you - are you thinking in absolutist terms? Are you overwhelmed by "shoulds"? What about feeling like everyone should like you - or that you should do everything to make people like you? You get the idea...the therapist will spend time talking with you and helping you identify where your thinking and/or interpreting get in the way of you feeling better. The workbooks may have you answer a lot of fill-in-the-blank questions or do a lot of sentence completions, but the goals are the same: helping you identify the types of negative thinking or interpreting that are not helping you.
Typical homework assignments include keeping a record of your thoughts and how those thoughts affected your emotions and behavior, or keeping track of how many times you catch yourself sliding into one kind of thought pattern. There are also behavioral challenges or assignments to help you practice a new way of interacting with and intepreting the world around you. I once kept track for a week of all my "shoulds" - I filled an entire 70-page mini-notebook! It's really eye-opening when you realize how often we engage in these ways of thinking, and how much they affect our moods and behavior - which is, of course, the point of the exercise!
Next, what may happen is that you may be asked to work on contradicting or "softening" these patterns. For example, if you're overly harsh with yourself, you might be asked to come up with thoughts or phrases or sentences to tell yourself that are loving, accepting and/or nonjudgmental. If you're stuck in a pattern where you're overgeneralizing things or magnifying/minimizing, you might be asked to come up more realistic interpretations. Many times, some of this work is done in the therapy room with the therapist helping you, because for many people in therapy these thought patterns have become habits. It may have happened out of ongoing abuse or neglect - these patterns are likely part of what helped you survive, or it may be something that's resulted from some situational things going on like, "I've been out of work for a year, and I'm worried I may not have enought money left to meet my or my family's basic needs" or "I can't seem to get myself to feel better even though it's been two years since my great-aunt Clara passed away".
Situations have a LOT of power - we tend to interpret our stuff in terms of the situation ("I was speeding because I needed to get home to a sick child") but we tend not to give others the same benefit of the doubt ("They were speeding...what jerks. I bet they cut everyone off and run red lights too"). As a side note: If you've taken introductory psychology, you'll probably recognize a few concepts here: self-serving bias, fundamental attribution error, actor-observer effect...
So, your therapist may use some gentle challenges, some reflecting, some humor (when appropriate), summations, "check-ins" (making sure they understand what you're telling them), etc. In therapy, you may also use some of the "workbook techniques" - they're very useful as homework.
With both the workbooks and in therapy, you'll also examine what triggers the thoughts, the emotions, and the behaviors - you may find that a certain style of thinking or way of interpreting things is behind the way you feel or behave. Or it may be something in your environment - a certain authority figure that reminds you of someone in your past who'd been critical, or a certain place, smell, sound that triggers memories and experiences from a a traumatic event - it's hard (or even impossible) to think clearly and well when you're re-experiencing something traumatic. (Here's where working with a therapist is really helpful - the therapist can help with the PTSD symptoms as well as the cognitive stuff.) From there, you can work to change, heal and hopefully start to feel better.
One thing I want to say about triggers: If you're dealing with PTSD or things that trigger severe emotional distress, please see a therapist. The therapist can provide a safety net where you can work on and process these triggers, and can again provide support for you while you're working on these. Any time you're dealing with severe or chronic emotional distress, it's best to see a professional who can do more than anything you'd find in a workbook or web site. A therapist can also help you go more in-depth and safely explore the event(s) or trauma behind the triggers. Workbooks and web-sites can provide tremendous support and information, and they don't take the place of a really good therapist. I don't want to diss support groupgs and websites - they are incredible and filled with fantastic people who have been through, treated or supported people through some pretty traumatic stuff. However, if you're in the throes of serious distress, adding a good therapist to that mix will only help you.
Ok - back to nuts and bolts: Another area you'll want to concentrate on, again with both the self-help stuff and in therapy, is what to do to help you maintain any changes you make and/or improve on them. Changing things in your lifestyle may help (for example, if you're dealing with depression, building in some exercise into your routine will likely help you feel better), as would continuing to use some of the tools you've used in therapy (like the mood log, or examining realistic vs unrealistic thinking). These aspects of therapy or self-help can help you manage situations in the moment and help you realistically process and think about them afterward.
The nice thing about CBT is that what you do and how you do it really is individualized. It's not about unconscious motives, Oedipus complexes, penis envy or any of that - it's about what YOU can do to help yourself think in a healthy manner, feel better and change your behaviors so that you're interacting with the world in a way that creates a better life for you. It's not a one-size-fits-all orientation either - CBT, through research, is always working to incorporate things that help and are validated by research. That said, sometimes it can seem "manualized" and "remote" - if this is the case, bring up how you're feeling about it in therapy, and process that with your therapist. If you're using a workbook, ask yourself what you're hoping to see in the workbook, and where you're missing what you wanted - then get recommendations for something new, or scale down your expectations and continue to work the program. (And expectations are a whole AREA of cognitions to work on, by the way!).
So...if you have questions about specific techniques, or want to know more about a specific area of cognitions and/or disorder where CBT may be helpful, feel free to comment or send me an email. I'm always happy to help, and answer all the comments and emails I get.
Take care and think well!
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.
If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org