What is CBT?
This simple idea is that our unique patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving are significant factors in our experiences, both good and bad. Since these patterns have such a significant impact on our experiences, it follows that altering these patterns can change our experiences (Martin, 2016).
CBT aims to change our thought patterns, the beliefs we may or may not know we hold, our attitudes, and ultimately our behavior in order to help us face our difficulties and more effectively strive towards our goals.
The founder of CBT is a therapists named Aaron Beck, a man who practiced psychoanalysis until he noticed the prevalence of internal dialogues in his clients, and realized how strong the link between thoughts and feelings can be. He altered the therapy he practiced in order to help his clients identify, understand, and deal with the automatic, emotion-filled thoughts that arise throughout the day.
Beck found that a combination of cognitive therapy and behavioral techniques produced the best results for his clients. In describing and honing this new therapy, Beck laid the foundations of the most popular and influential form of therapy of the last 50 years.
This form of therapy is not designed for lifelong participation, but focuses more on helping clients meet their goals in the near future. Most CBT treatment regimens last from five to ten months, with one 50 to 60 minute session per week.
CBT is a hands-on approach that requires both the therapist and the client to be invested in the process and willing to actively participate. The therapist and client work together as a team to identify the problems the client is facing, come up with new strategies for addressing them, and thinking up positive solutions (Martin, 2016).
Many of the most popular and effective CBT techniques are applied to what psychologists call “cognitive distortions” (Grohol, 2016).
Cognitive distortions: inaccurate thoughts that reinforce negative thought patterns or emotions.
Cognitive distortions are faulty ways of thinking that convince us of a reality that is simply not true.
There are 15 main cognitive distortions that can plague even the most balanced thinkers at times:
Filtering refers to the way many of us can somehow ignore all of the positive and good things in our day to focus solely on the negative. It can be far too easy to dwell on a single negative aspect, even when surrounded by an abundance of good things.
Polarized Thinking / “Black and White” Thinking
This cognitive distortion is all about seeing black and white only, with no shades of grey. This is all-or-nothing thinking, with no room for complexity or nuance. If you don’t perform perfectly in some area, then you may see yourself as a total failure instead of simply unskilled in one area.
Overgeneralization is taking a single incident or point in time and using it as the sole piece of evidence for a broad general conclusion. For example, a person may be looking for a job and have a bad interview experience. Instead of brushing it off as one bad interview and trying again, they conclude that they are terrible at interviewing and will never get a job offer.
Jumping to Conclusions
Similar to overgeneralization, this distortion involves faulty reasoning in how we make conclusions. Instead of overgeneralizing one incident, however, jumping to conclusions refers to the tendency to be sure of something without any evidence at all. We may be convinced that someone dislikes us with only the flimsiest of proof, or we may be convinced that our fears will come true before we have a chance to find out.
Catastrophizing / Magnifying or Minimizing
This distortion involves expectations that the worst will happen or has happened, based on a small incident that is nowhere near the tragedy that it is made out to be. For example, you may make a small mistake at work and be convinced that it will ruin the project you are working on, your boss will be furious, and you will lose your job. Alternatively, we may minimize the importance of positive things, such as an accomplishment at work or a desirable personal characteristic.
This is a distortion where an individual believes that everything they do has an impact on external events or other people, no matter how irrational the link between. The person suffering from this distortion will feel that they have an unreasonably important role in the bad things that happen around them. For instance, a person may believe that the meeting they were a few minutes late in getting to was derailed because of them, and that everything would have been fine if they were on time.
Another distortion involves feeling that everything that happens to you is a result of external forces or due to your own actions. Sometimes what happens to us is due to forces we can’t control, and sometimes what happens is due to our actions, but the false thinking is in assuming that it is always one or the other. We may assume that the quality of our work is due to working with difficult people, or alternatively that every mistake someone else makes is due to something we did.
Fallacy of Fairness
We are often concerned about fairness, but this concern can be taken to extremes. As we know, life is not always fair. The person who goes through life looking for fairness in all their experiences will end up resentful and unhappy. Sometimes things will go our way, and sometimes they will not, regardless of how fair it may seem.
When things don’t go our way, there are many ways we can explain or assign responsibility for the outcome. One method of assigning responsibility is blaming others for what goes wrong. Sometimes we may blame others for making us feel or act a certain way, but this is a cognitive distortion because we are the only ones responsible for the way we feel or act.
“Shoulds” refer to the implicit or explicit rules we have about how we and others should behave. When others break our rules, we are upset. When we break our own rules, we feel guilty. For example, we may have an unofficial rule that a customer service representatives should always be accommodating to the customer. When we interact with a customer service representative that is not immediately accommodating, we might get angry. If we have an implicit rule that we are irresponsible if we spend money on unnecessary things, we may feel exceedingly guilty when we spend even a small amount of money on something we don’t need.
This distortion involves thinking that if we feel a certain way, it must be true. For example, if we feel unattractive or uninteresting in the current moment, we must be unattractive or uninteresting. This cognitive distortion boils down to:
“I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
Clearly our emotions are not always indicative of the objective truth, but it can be difficult to look past how we feel.
Fallacy of Change
The fallacy of change lies in expecting other people to change as it suits us. This ties into the feeling that our happiness depends on other people, and their unwillingness or inability to change, even if we push and press and demand it, keeps us from being happy. This is clearly a damaging way to think, since no one is responsible for our happiness except for us.
Global Labeling / Mislabeling
This cognitive distortion is an extreme form of generalizing, in which we generalize one or two instances or qualities into a global judgment. For example, if we fail at a specific task, we may conclude that we are a total failure in not only this area, but all areas. Alternatively, when a stranger says something a bit rude, we may conclude that he or she is an unfriendly person in general. Mislabeling is specific to using exaggerated and emotionally loaded language, such as saying a woman has abandoned her children when she leaves her children with a babysitter to enjoy a night out.
Always Being Right
While we all enjoy being right, this distortion makes us think we must be right, that being wrong is unacceptable. We may believe that being right is more important than the feelings of others, being able to admit when we’ve made a mistake, or being fair and objective.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
This distortion involves expecting that any sacrifice or self-denial on our part will pay off. We may consider this karma, and expect that karma will always immediately reward us for our good deeds. Of course, this results in feelings of bitterness when we do not receive our reward (Grohol, 2016).
Many tools and techniques found in CBT are intended to address or reverse these cognitive distortions
9 Essential CBT Techniques and Tools
There are many tools and techniques used in CBT, many of which have spread from the therapy context to everyday life. The nine techniques and tools listed below are some of the most common and effective CBT practices.
This technique is a way of “gathering data” about our moods and our thoughts. This journal can include the time of the mood or thought, the source of it, the extent or intensity, and how we responded to it, among other factors. This technique can help us to identify our thought patterns and emotional tendencies, describe them, and find out how to change, adapt, or cope with them.
Unraveling Cognitive Distortions
This is a main goal of CBT, and can be practiced with or without the help of a therapist. In order to unravel the cognitive distortions you hold, you must first become aware of which distortions you are most vulnerable to. Part of this involves identifying and challenging our harmful automatic thoughts, which frequently fall into one of the categories listed earlier.
Once you identify the distortions or inaccurate views on the world you hold, you can begin to learn about how this distortion took root and why you came to believe it. When you discover a belief that is destructive or harmful, you can begin to challenge it. For example, if you believe that you must have a high paying job to be a respectable person, but you lose your high paying job, you will begin to feel bad about yourself.
Instead of accepting this faulty belief that leads you to think unreasonably negative thoughts about yourself, you could take this opportunity to think about what makes a person “respectable,” a belief you may not have explicitly considered before.
Exposure and Response Prevention
This technique is effective for those who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and phobias. Those with OCD can practice this technique by exposing yourself to whatever it is that normally elicits a compulsive behavior, but doing your best to refrain from the behavior and writing about it. You can combine journaling with this technique, or use journaling to understand how this technique makes you feel. Those with phobias can learn to expose themselves to whatever elicits their fears, learn ways to cope with the anxiety, and not leave the feared situation until their anxiety has diminished.
This technique is intended to treat panic and anxiety. It involves exposure to feared bodily sensations in order to elicit the response, activate any unhelpful beliefs associated with the sensations, maintain the sensations without distraction or avoidance, and allow new learning about the sensations to take place. It is intended to help the sufferer see that symptoms of panic are not dangerous, although they may be uncomfortable.
Nightmare Exposure and Rescripting
Nightmare exposure and rescripting is intended specifically for those suffering from nightmares. This technique is similar to interoceptive exposure, in that the nightmare is elicited, which brings up the relevant emotion. Once the emotion has arisen, the client and therapist work together to identify the desired emotion and develop a new image to accompany the desired emotion.
Play the Script Until the End
This technique is especially useful for those suffering from fear and anxiety. In this technique, the individual who is vulnerable to crippling fear or anxiety conducts a sort of thought experiment, where they imagine the outcome of the worst case scenario. Letting this scenario play out can help the individual to recognize that even if everything they fear comes to pass, it will likely turn out okay.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
This is a familiar technique to those who practice mindfulness. Similar to the body scan, this technique instructs you to relax one muscle group at a time until your whole body is in a state of relaxation. You can use audio guidance, a YouTube video, or simply your own mind to practice this technique, and it can be especially helpful for calming nerves and soothing a busy and unfocused mind.
This is another technique that is not specific to CBT, but will be familiar to practitioners of mindfulness. There are many ways to relax and bring regularity to your breath, including guided and unguided imagery, audio recordings, YouTube videos, and scripts. Bringing regularity and calm to your breath will allow you to approach your problems from a place of balance, facilitating more effective and rational decision making (Megan, 2016).