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“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”– Buddha
Last month, I spent an hour each day studying Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and putting it into practice in my life. In this post, I want to share with you 7 key lessons I have learned since I began studying CBT. These are ideas, mindsets and techniques that I have found especially helpful to apply in real-life situations.
1. Situations cannot create feelings – only your thoughts about the situation can.
This point is best explained with some quotes from the book ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: 7 Ways to Freedom from Anxiety, Depression, and Intrusive Thoughts!’ by Lawrence Wallace.
“The cognitive model challenges the idea of a direct connection between situations or experiences and feelings and posits that it is actually the thoughts we have about those situations that result in the feelings we have.”– Lawrence Wallace
“We can’t always change our circumstances or the situations that life hands us, but we can change how we think about them – and thus, how we feel about them. This is the basic theory behind CBT.”– Lawrence Wallace
“An event or situation merely activates a series of thoughts; it does not cause feelings. This is great news, because while we cannot always change situations and events, we can change what we think and believe.”– Lawrence Wallace
Now obviously if a tragedy happens in your life then you are going to feel terrible. It is still your thoughts about the event that are causing you to feel terrible, not the event itself. But you can’t be expected to think positive thoughts about an awful event. Negative thoughts and feelings do have their place in life.
This first point is more useful in situations that are mildly bad, for example, if you fail a test. You might feel bad about it because you are thinking about it as a failure and a disaster. If you change your thinking to something like, ‘this is a learning experience and I can try again’ then you will probably feel better.
2. Notice unhelpful thoughts. Replace them with helpful thoughts.
Any time you notice yourself having an unhelpful thought, stop and think of a helpful thought that you could replace this with. For example, if you notice yourself thinking, “I don’t want to go to this social event, I’m going to be anxious”, deliberately think a more helpful thought such as, “I will probably enjoy the event once I am there. I am usually most anxious in the lead up to events like this, and then I am usually fine. It will be nice to see my friends.”.
It is important to make your replacement thought believable and realistic. In the above example, a different replacement thought could have been “I’m going to have an amazing time and I’ll be the life of the party!”, but that thought would not be so helpful because you might not believe it. It may make you more anxious because you feel pressure to have an amazing time. You would have a hard time pushing the original unhelpful thought out of your mind because the replacement thought was unrealistic and too big of a step up.
Along the same lines, I describe thoughts as unhelpful/helpful rather than as positive/negative. This is because, in some situations, a positive thought may be too big of a step up, and hence not be helpful after all. A helpful (but still negative) thought, i.e. a ‘less bad’ thought would be better than the unhelpful negative thought you are having.
Suppose you have done something that hurt your friend. Instead of thinking “I am such a terrible person because I hurt my friend’s feelings. She’ll never want to talk to me again” you could think “I am sad because I upset my friend. She will probably not want to talk to me for a while.” This is still negative but it is more helpful because you will not be beating yourself up about it quite so much. After all, you can’t change what you did to your friend. Hold the expectation that although she won’t want to talk to you for a while, she eventually will. This leaves open the possibility of reconciliation with your friend. Conversely, to think a truly positive thought such as “It’s totally fine and everything is going to carry on like normal” would be unrealistic and thus unhelpful.
To summarise, It’s all about finding a different, better way of interpreting a situation. Get into the habit of questioning upsetting thoughts and replacing them with more helpful ones.
If you are having trouble remembering to notice your thoughts on a regular basis, I would recommend practising mindfulness. An easy way to start with this is by trying some guided meditations – there are plenty on YouTube. Mindfulness can help you to become more aware of your thoughts.
3. Take note of which behaviours make you feel better or worse.
If you have a bad day (or a funny five minutes), do you remember what were you doing when you started to feel off? As I discussed above, thoughts create feelings. But sometimes behaviours cause feelings too, by triggering certain thought patterns. For example, you might find that by looking through old photos from a relationship, friendship or life stage that regrettably came to an end, you start thinking thoughts like “I was so much happier back then” and “Look what I lost” which would make you feel sad. Rather than trying to change your thoughts in this situation, it’s much easier just to avoid looking at the photos that are likely to trigger you.
This seems obvious, but sometimes certain behaviours that elicit an emotional response can be tempting or even addictive. Take note of any behaviours that tend to make you feel worse, and avoid them, even if you feel like doing them. With practice, you will be able to recognise when you are about to do something that is likely to make you feel bad and replace it with a more helpful behaviour.
Likewise, take note of behaviours that make you feel good, and do more of those!
4. Turn your focus to the task or environment.
When you are anxious (or experiencing any other negative emotion), you are usually very focused on the anxious thoughts that are going round and round in your head, and on the symptoms in your body. Instead, turn your attention towards the task you are doing, or towards your environment. For example, in rehearsals recently I have practised focusing on the piece of music I am playing. By doing this, I get absorbed into the music and my anxiety fades into the background. If you are not currently doing a specific task, for example if you are waiting in line at the supermarket, or sitting in a doctors’ waiting room, orient yourself to your environment and pay attention to what is going on around you. What can you see in your immediate surroundings? This will distract you from your negative feelings.
This can also be used as a preventative technique. If you are going into a situation that sometimes triggers anxiety (or another negative feeling), you can make sure to focus on your task or environment from the start. This way, you stand a better chance of staving off anxiety before it even takes hold.
In summary, pay less attention to what is happening inside of you, and more attention to what is happening outside of you!
5. Avoidance makes anxiety worse.
Anxiety is maintained by the avoidance of what is feared! If you avoid something that you are anxious about, your anxiety about it will remain, and may even grow. It may seem counterintuitive, but the only way your anxiety can reduce is by facing the thing you are anxious about. I have certainly found this to be true in my life.
Progress requires repetition! You may have to face your fears over and over before you see a real difference. It is important to celebrate and praise yourself every time you get through a feared situation, no matter how it went. The fact that you faced it is a victory! Even if it didn’t go well, you can be sure that if you hadn’t faced it at all you would be worse off, because you would stand no chance of improving matters.
I have found that when I leave a long period of time between instances of facing a feared situation, my anxiety often gets worse again. This suggests that it’s a good idea to face your fears regularly. Do you find that by the time you come to the end of a scary situation, for example, giving a speech, you feel fine, and you feel as though you could go and do it again right away with no problems? Surely the only thing separating that feeling from the next instance is the passage of time. So try to hold on to that feeling of wellbeing, and keep the time gap as short as possible before the next time!
6. Act the way you aspire to be, no matter how you feel.
No matter how you feel, and even if you are convinced it will all go wrong, throw yourself into situations and act the way you would normally act if you were feeling fine. This takes courage, but you will be surprised at how capable you are. Even if things don’t turn out perfectly, your attitude of confidence will likely create the best possible outcome you could have at that time.
“A good rule of thumb for recovery from many psychological problems is: ‘If you want to feel normal again, you need to start acting as you would normally’”– Rhena Branch and Rob Willson, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies
Another method is to imagine your ideal self, the person you aspire to become. How would the best version of yourself act in this situation? Now go ahead and do that! You’ll find yourself on the path to becoming that person.
The more you take this leap of faith, the more you will trust in your ability to cope in difficult situations, and you’ll realise that things really do turn out okay!
7. Let go of expectations.
Life can be unpredictable and sometimes you can feel like you are making great progress and then fall flat. Other times, you can have a terrible day and it ends up lifting you up because the next day you become super motivated to sort your life out. The moral is, enjoy and appreciate the good times, even knowing they are temporary. Appreciate the bad times because you learn lessons from them and become stronger, and they are always temporary too.
You will always have bad days, but learn not to see them as a problem. Carry on like normal and push through them. You will bounce back much more quickly if you just shrug them off, rather than hanging on to them or letting them affect future days. Just keep picking yourself up and start each moment afresh!
If something goes badly on one occasion, don’t spend the next week worrying that it will happen again. I have found that usually, the next time I enter the same situation or event again, it is absolutely fine, even if I have been worrying about it! So there’s no point in worrying about it at all!
“The road to recovery from mental illness is rarely a steady uphill climb. Setbacks and difficult days are part and parcel of a normal recovery. Don’t be too disappointed if, after a series of good days, you have a hard one. This difficult day isn’t a return to square one or a sign that you’re not improving. Just saddle up and get back on the horse.”– Rhena Branch and Rob Willson, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies
The quotes in this post were taken from the following two books, which I found immensely helpful and inspiring while learning about CBT. I would thoroughly recommend both of these books!