Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) focuses on the effects of learning and experience on human behaviour and the structure of the mind. According to this approach, our emotions, thoughts, and behaviour are a cycle, one that we can become trapped and unhappy in. There are two ways to change this vicious cycle:
• Changing thoughts to change emotions: Our emotions don't appear out of nowhere; they usually reveal a thought or feeling that has passed through our mind automatically. If we want to change our feelings about things, we need to change our thoughts. The first step is becoming aware of our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world around us, some of which may be distorted and unhelpful. The aim is to 'repair' thoughts that could prove useful to us, jettison unhelpful ones, and learn new and more constructive ways of thinking.
• Changing behaviour to change emotions: If we want to alter a negative emotion that is proving very resistant, we can start by changing our behaviour. Our behaviour alone has the power to change our emotions.
So how does CBT work in practice?
Imagine that you are changing jobs or moving houses. Change and uncertainty often make us anxious and this can make us feel pessimistic about the future.
One way of tackling any negative feelings about your new situation would be to ask yourself the following questions: What does change mean to me? How do I feel about starting a new job? When I'm unhappy at work, is this unhappiness usually caused by other people? What are my relationships with other people like? How do I feel about the world and my place in it?
If your anxiety didn't diminish after examining your core beliefs and interpreting your answers with the help of your therapist, it would be best to put these negative thoughts and emotions aside and do something physically relaxing. This might mean pounding the treadmill or going out dancing with friends. Together with your therapist, you would identify the activities that you truly enjoy. Developing a regular sleep routine, eating healthily, going for long walks, knitting, solving puzzles…anything that relaxes you will help. We become less negative when our bodies relax. And when our mood lightens we start to reason better. Once we feel more relaxed, we can resume reviewing our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world.
According to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world around us are formed in infancy and childhood. Our experiences later in life build on these foundations. Traumas that disrupt the mother-father-baby relationship are especially likely to affect a person's ability to regulate their emotions in adulthood. For example, a mother that panics when her baby cries may not be able to teach her child how to calm itself down in stressful situations. Instead, the child will have to learn this quality by observing other people as it grows up. The child's "calming" role model could be a close friend, a teacher or a psychotherapist. Our relationships with the people we care about are crucial. If these relationships are based on affection and mutual understanding they have the potential to repair childhood traumas.
What are the goals of therapy?
Your relationship with your therapist will be based on trust and mutual respect. By talking freely through your issues, the aim is to help you: soften the strict rules you set for yourselves and others, broaden your perspective on life, develop alternative opinions on issues you may have been struggling with, experience emotions (negative or positive) freely without being overwhelmed, and connect with others.
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