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The way one thinks influences the way one behaves and feels. This is the core concept of an effective, short-term, and goal-oriented treatment approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). So, if you can change the way you think, then changes in your emotions and behaviors will follow.
Anxiety is a common reason people seek CBT, and part of the process is understanding and exploring how the experience of anxiety is a result of unhelpful thought patterns. The thoughts are so automatic and fast, that many of us only notice the emotional, behavioral, and physical experiences such as an increase in heart rate, sweaty palms, and irritability that often can come along with anxiety. Constantly engaging in these automatic thought patterns leads to significant distress. So, in CBT, a goal is to develop skills to catch the way you’re thinking, checking those thoughts for any bias, and then ultimately work to change them. These are the three C’s of CBT: Catch it, Check it, and Change it.
Let’s start with the “catch it” of CBT. This can begin with a practice of mindfulness: when you notice that you are feeling anxious, write down what happened. What was the situation that occurred before you noticed your anxiety? Who was involved? What was going on? Where were you? This will help you get an idea of your triggers and you will learn to be aware of the negative thoughts you are having.
Being aware of your thoughts is a challenging first step given that our thoughts are so automatic and quick. However, if you are able to catch what you are thinking, then you have the opportunity to manage the thoughts that generate negative emotions. This leads us to the next C, which is to “check it.”
The “check it” step reminds us to step back and analyze our thoughts. Are my thoughts reasonable and realistic? Are there other possible explanations other than what I’m thinking? The goal is to be objective of our thoughts. However, this is difficult given that our individual thoughts contain biases. For example, think of a black cat crossing the street. Some readers may think, “that’s unlucky,” yet other readers may think, “look how cute.” The situation is the same, but the perspective can vary greatly.
Checking your thoughts means considering perspectives other than your own and challenging any biases your thoughts have. An example of a cognitive bias is black-and-white thinking, such as using words like “always” or “never.” Instead, try to think in gray: Is it accurate that things always go wrong? Find the in-between. Maybe some things don’t go your way, but have there also been times when things go well for you? This relates to having balanced and non-absolute thinking. There are several cognitive biases or thinking styles associated with CBT, particularly ones that ignite anxiety and depression. It is helpful to spend time learning about these thinking styles and finding patterns of thinking that you engage in. A helpful exercise can be asking yourself, “what would I tell a friend or family member who was experiencing the same thing?” This can help generate alternative explanations and reduce the personalization of events.
Each of these tips encourages people to “check” their thoughts. By generating evidence for and against your thoughts, you are able to then “change” your thoughts and manage negative emotions.
The “change it” step is about actually substituting your original thought with a more realistic or helpful thought. Take the example below:
This becomes a vicious cycle. The more you avoid, the less you have to feel good about, leading to ongoing negative emotions. On the other hand, maybe there is an alternative thought that can change the resulting emotion and actions.
This example demonstrates how CBT is not about denying your thoughts, but about having more helpful thoughts. So, yes, it has been a difficult week and that is true. However, it also highlights that it is not helpful to only think about the past because there is nothing you can do about what has happened. Remember, you can only change the present and the future.
It is important to practice these steps regularly as it takes time for any change to take effect, particularly with your thoughts. “Catch It, Check It, Change It” is a simple way to remember how to make lasting changes.
To learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), call us today to schedule a confidential appointment:
COBB PSYCHOTHERAPY LCSW
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