Cognitive therapy supports natural healing and fuels your mind for health. This therapy helps you break lose from powerful negative mood states by working with beliefs and thoughts that cause unnecessary problems and unhealthy stress.
Living your life with old unhealthy ways of thinking is like… well, not ever changing the oil and expecting your car to run smoothly.
The word “cognitive” refers to perceiving and knowing. Cognitive therapy developed from the recognition that often stress and emotional suffering result from the way you think about or perceive things. These thoughts and perceptions may or may not be accurate.
Typically, you get them from parents, teachers, and other early life experiences. They often go unquestioned and over time become habits. They go on “automatic.” You don’t even realize you have them.
Cognitive therapists developed basic principles and techniques from their experience in helping people. Research proves it effective in treating stress, depression, anxiety, and pain. It also helps people quit destructive habits and cope with chronic illness.
Before we get to the principles a few words about what cognitive therapy is not. Cognitive therapy doesn’t deny negative emotions or try to make you see them as “bad.”
Negative emotions like anger, fear, and frustration can be very healthy. They act as warnings that something’s wrong and action needs to be taken. They can help overcome obstacles, avoid injury, and motivate you to make positive changes in your life.
Cognitive therapy helps you get clear on whether your negative emotions are a result of faulty thinking and beliefs or a signal that something is wrong and needs addressed.
Here are cognitive therapy principles with examples from Mary’s experience in using them. (Mary is a fictitious name to protect her privacy).
Cognitive Therapy Principles
Thoughts create feelings.
When you feel angry, sad, or happy for that matter, there is a thought that came before and caused it.
Sometimes thoughts are so automatic that you can mix them up with feelings. For example, Mary said, “I don’t feel worthy.” After reflecting on this statement she realized that “I don’t feel worthy” was actually an automatic thought, “I’m not worthy”—one that she has often. She identified her feelings as anxious and depressed.
Negative, unrealistic, and distorted thoughts and their related feelings cause much of the stress or problems in life.
Mary kept a journal noting when she felt depressed, stressed, or anxious. She was shocked how often the automatic thought “I’m not worthy” came before her feelings.
The body doesn’t know the difference between something imagined and something that actually happens.
That’s why when you think of eating a lemon you start to salivate. Or, when you think of a scary movie your pulse starts to quicken.
In her journal, Mary also noted that her thought “I’m not worthy” and feelings (anxious and depressed) were often linked to her headaches.
We frequently talk to ourselves and often the content of this self-talk is negative.
Mary’s most frequent self-talk was, “I’m not worthy.” She recalled how her mother believed that being humble was a virtue and criticized her when she would boast of an accomplishment.
We rarely question our thoughts.
Mary never thought to question her haunting thought of not being worthy. She just assumed it was true. It had been with her for so long it felt like a part of who she was.
Once we settle in on a way of thinking (right or wrong), we naturally attend to things that match to this “point of view.” In this way, a pattern of thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For example, Mary applied for a job. It was a perfect match for her. She had the right experience, she enjoyed the type of work, and her references from her past job were OK.
But… she started thinking of all the reasons she wouldn’t get the job. She thought, “I’m not worthy” and was sure there were other applicants far more qualified than she was. She felt depressed and didn’t sleep well.
Mary had an interview. But, she was so anxious and tired her enthusiasm didn’t come through. She had a headache and couldn’t think clearly. Even though she was the most qualified applicant, she didn’t get the job.
By changing unrealistic, distorted thoughts, you can change how you feel both emotionally and physically.
Mary had to work at it. Her thought, “I’m not worthy” kept popping up in her mind. She had to challenge herself to think differently. With the help of her therapist, she explored the evidence for her unworthiness. She had flaws, but who doesn’t.
Besides, when she opened up her perspective to look at her accomplishments and things that she had done to help others she realized she was at least as worthy as the next person! No one’s perfect.
The Negative Stress Cycle
Herbert Benson, MD, and Eileen Stuart, RN, C, MS, call this pattern of thinking “The Negative Stress Cycle.” Automatic thoughts (I’m not worthy) trigger negative emotions and moods that cause negative physical symptoms and behaviors—stress. Once the cycle gets started it’s self perpetuating.
Now let’s break the cycle and fuel your mind for health.
Fuel Your Mind for Health
- Notice early warning signs.</ol
What are the early warning signs indicating you are getting upset or stressed. Make a list including all aspects of your self (emotional, physical, social, spiritual).
Stop when you notice the early warning signs. Break the “automatic” cycle.
Take a few good breaths to release tension.
Identify the negative automatic thoughts and beliefs that trigger and perpetuate the negative emotional state. Is there a particular pattern to them? Are they exaggerated or unrealistic? How do they influence you? Answer these questions:
- What am I feeling?
- What am I thinking?What are my assumptions, perceptions, and beliefs about this situation? Are they true? How do I know they are true?Am I using any of the cognitive distortions or irrational ideas, assumptions, and beliefs? Watch for “red flag” words that indicate automatic thoughts: should, must, always, never, ought.Do I need more information?
- What do I want?Is it to my advantage to think this way? Is there another way to look at the situation that better matches what I want?
- Substitute more realistic, self-enhancing thoughts to reduce the stress, symptoms, or emotional pain.
Mary substituted, “I am worthy and have much to contribute” for her automatic thought, “I’m not worthy.”
She had another job interview. This time instead of worrying about how others were sure to be more qualified, she made a list of her experience and accomplishments in previous jobs. She created a folder with examples of her work.
During the interview, her enthusiasm and knowledge showed through… She got the job!
The technique above, called cognitive restructuring, is often used in cognitive therapy. Other cognitive therapy techniques include assertiveness training, enhancing social support, communication skills, problem solving, and others.
You can use cognitive therapy techniques on your own or with the help of a therapist. If you’re experiencing significant negative moods or symptoms its best to start with a licensed therapist. Cognitive therapists act as guides helping your learn the skills. Once learned you have them for life.
The techniques are easy, simple, and can only help not harm you. Only, remember, you’ve probably had your negative automatic thoughts for a long time. It takes practice, dedication, and time to replace them with positive healthy thoughts.
It helps to have a friend help you and to keep a journal of your progress. Let your friend know what you’re working on and to help you become more aware of your destructive patterns. Both your friend’s feedback and the journal help you get a different perspective and better clarity in your thinking. And, they show your progress over time.
Make columns in your journal with each of these categories for notes. Then fill in the columns for each category including the date as situations or symptoms occur.
- Brief description of the situation
- Physical Symptoms
- Feelings (emotions, moods)
- Thoughts (automatic thoughts)
- Beliefs, Assumptions, Judgments
- Behavior (how you behaved in the situation)
See our Book Store for useful cognitive therapy self help books like, Feeling Good by David D. Burn, MD and The Wellness Book: The Comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Health and Treating Stress-Related Illness by Herbert Benson, MD and Eileen M. Stuart, RN, C, MS.
Let cognitive therapy help you break lose from negative emotional states and their harmful effects.
Fuel your mind for health with cognitive therapy.