What comes to mind when you think of bad habits?
Hitting snooze? Spending too much time on Instagram? Forgetting to floss (but lying to your dentist about it? Don’t worry. We’ve all been there.)
These likely popped up in your head because they happen to the best of us. A big one we tend to overlook, though, is the habit of negative thinking. “We all experience negative thoughts,” says Miranda, a therapist at HealthOne. “Even the most proactive, high self-esteem person can feel this way sometimes.”
Changing the way you think isn’t as easy as putting your phone in another room or flossing your teeth. But with a can-do attitude and the help of a trusted therapist, it can certainly be done.
What is CBT?
CBT is a form of short-term psychotherapy. “The main goal is to help a person identify negative thinking patterns and become more aware of them,” Miranda explains. It’s rooted in the belief that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all interconnected.
It was first developed in 1960 by Dr. Aaron T. Beck, and since then, CBT has been widely researched and practiced in the mental health field. It can have a positive impact on individuals dealing with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, among other conditions.
Changing your thoughts can significantly improve your quality of life, but it’s a challenging journey to embark on by yourself. “Solving these things on your own can be really difficult,” she adds. “That’s why it really helps to point out with a therapist what your thinking is and what that cognitive distortion may be.”
How does CBT work?
The first step of CBT is identifying negative thoughts. Here are two examples of cognitive distortions a client might experience.
Fortune telling. This is when someone thinks they can “predict the future”. Examples of fortune telling include thoughts such as:
- “Tomorrow is going to be a bad day.”
- “My life is never going to get better.”
- “My meeting tomorrow is going to go terribly.”
Catastrophizing. This is when someone has a greatly exaggerated perception of their reality. Examples of catastrophizing include thoughts such as:
- “My friend didn’t text me back today. I must have done something wrong.”
- “My boss asked me to re-do a project. I’m likely getting fired.”
- “My partner asked for alone time. I bet they’re thinking about breaking up with me.”
“We really want to become aware of those core beliefs and understand what the problem is,” Miranda explains. Once the negative beliefs have been identified, the next step is to challenge them.
A therapist might facilitate this by asking the client to keep a thought log. “They’ll keep track of their feelings or thoughts – so for example, ‘What am I thinking today?’ or ‘What is coming up?’. It really gets them to start connecting to that feeling part of the self,” she says.
This “homework” between sessions helps to keep the client engaged. Putting in effort outside of the therapy room is necessary because building better habits doesn’t happen overnight.
Once a client has written in their thought log, a therapist will help them challenge their thoughts. They might ask questions along the lines of:
- “Is that thought a feeling, or a fact?” or
- “What would someone else say about the situation?”
It’s important to point out, however, that CBT is tailored to each person’s unique situation. It isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and the conversations always take place organically. According to Miranda, reaching the end goal of CBT can take anywhere from 6-20 sessions.
“Sometimes they can grasp those concepts, but sometimes it takes a lot of repetition and saying it in similar – but different – ways. It’s about drawing that awareness and consciousness, identifying those cognitive distortions, and reflecting back to them what they’re feeling and thinking,” she says.
CBT for Anxiety
As we mentioned, CBT can effectively help people who suffer from various mental health conditions. A big one seen these days, especially in young people, is anxiety. Here’s an example of how CBT could be used with a client who experiences social anxiety.
- The situation: Cassandra bumps into her old friend, Megan, at the mall. Megan is usually a warm and friendly person but seems very cold and distant when Cassandra says hello.
- How she reacts: Cassandra interprets the interaction negatively and begins to catastrophize. She writes in her thought journal, “Megan seemed upset today, so I must have done something wrong.” She worries about it for weeks and convinces herself that Megan is upset with her.
- How CBT could help: Cassandra’s therapist helps her identify and challenge those beliefs. He helps her identify what she can control (how she perceives the interaction) and what she can’t control (how Megan was feeling that day). He asks questions such as, “Do you know for a fact that Megan is upset with you, or is that just how you’re feeling?” and “What would someone else think about the situation?”. This allows Cassandra to view the interaction objectively and puts the power back in her own hands.
- The reality + next steps: The next time they see each other, Megan explains that she’d received upsetting news on the day they last spoke. Cassandra feels much better and is reassured that it had nothing to do with her. When something similar happens in the future, Cassandra responds by using the tools she learned in therapy. Instead of jumping to conclusions and falling down a wormhole of catastrophizing, she focuses on what she does have control over (her thoughts!)
This scenario is a simplified example of CBT in practice. Other forms of therapy can also be used to treat anxiety, and many of them can be used in conjunction with CBT.
If you believe you’re struggling with a mental health condition, it never hurts to speak with a therapist. Visiting a trusted professional can give you an unbiased perspective and encourage you to live a more positive life.
At the end of the day, we all struggle with negative self-talk sometimes. Like Miranda mentioned, even the happiest, most productive people have to deal with it. That’s why visiting a therapist is always a good idea – we could all use somebody to lean on.
“You don’t have to have something really intense going on to go to therapy,” she concludes. “You can come in to talk about your habits, or just to check in on your mental health. As human beings, we’re growing every single day, and therapy can teach you so much about yourself.”
CBT is one of many forms of psychotherapy that Miranda, along with other therapists, uses with their clients. Find out if CBT in Toronto is right for you by scheduling a free Meet & Greet with a HealthOne therapist!
One Life. Live Inspired.