This approach to therapy says that what you think leads to what you feel. This then influences your behaviors.
Consider these examples:
- A woman thinks that she is intelligent enough to finish an MBA program. She feels confident, applies to some programs and gets into them. She then studies (a behavior) and completes the program.
- A man thinks that he is good looking and successful enough to meet a woman who is right for him. He also thinks that with time and some dating this he will meet her. He feels confident. He goes to a few events (a behavior), talks to different women and goes on dates (these are all behaviors). Eventually, he does meet a woman that is right for him.
- A woman thinks that she is not attractive or interesting to potential mates. She feels unsure of herself and shy. Her friend brings her to different events but she doesn’t engage people (a behavior). When people come to talk to her, she has trouble keeping the conversations going (a behavior) due to self-critical thoughts during the conversation.
- A man would really like to be a physician but does not think that he is intelligent enough to do the course work. He feels unsure of himself but signs up for the boards anyway. However, he thinks that he isn’t going to do well and isn’t able to focus on studying (a behavior). He doesn’t pass the boards.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps people identify both conscious and subconscious thoughts that are leading them to self-limiting feelings and behaviors. Even if there is some truth to the negative thinking, there may be a way to shift the thoughts to lead to more productive behaviors..
Take a look at the example above of the man that wants to go to medical school. His thought coming into therapy might be, “I’d like to be a doctor but I am not smart enough to go to medical school.” After some Cognitive Therapy he might start to think, “I have some abilities as a student and some deficits. If I get help with the deficits, improve my study skills and work hard, I should be able to manage medical school.” This thought would lead him behaviors that would help him get into medical school.
The question that most people have is- how does one change their thoughts? This takes time and effort but is possible. It is important to realize several things about thoughts. One is that they are habits. We are in the habit of thinking certain things. The other is that thoughts are not always completely accurate.
Some are. If I thought right at this moment “I am writing for my web site,” that is completely accurate.
Some thoughts are completely inaccurate. If I thought right now, “if I concentrate hard enough I can make myself fly,” that would be completely inaccurate. No matter how much I think, “I can fly,” I simply can’t.
Some thoughts have elements of truth but are distorted, in either a negative or positive direction. If I think, “Cognitive therapy will make my client’s anxiety go away right now,” that is distorted. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy will help my clients with lessening anxiety, if they come to therapy and we work together for a period of time.
CBT helps clients identify which thoughts are accurate, which are inaccurate, and which are distorted. From there, clients and I work together to identify more balanced and logical thoughts. The next step in therapy is to work together to make the new and more balanced thoughts habitual. It can take time and hard work, but CBT is a well-researched and time tested therapy that can help people with multiple problems such as anxiety, depression, romantic relationships and managing a divorce.
For more about how CBT can help anxiety, click this link for a short slideshow