07 Aug Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for thinking well

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sets the premise that great emotional health starts with our thoughts. Often, it’s what we think about things that matters, not what actually happens.

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Imagine this scenario: you’re at work/at the school gate/at a party, and somebody you know walks past. Out of reflex you gesture towards them, but soon realise they’re not responding. They don’t acknowledge you. You self-consciously withdraw your smile or your waving arm, and continue on with your business.

Psychologists believe that the way you interpret this event will determine how you subsequently feel. And in turn, the way you feel will have real consequences on the way you subsequently behave.

Sound dramatic and over the top? Yes. But all of us, whether we consider ourselves super-sensitive or not, are at the mercy of this basic cascade. Every day, every interaction, and with every experience we have.

This is the basic premise of cognitive behavioural therapy (or “CBT”, as your GP or therapist may call it). Here it is again: how we interpret an event (our thoughts) causes our emotional response to the event (our feelings), which in turn, causes how we will subsequently behave (our actions).

Let’s take the above scenario and draw it out to two very different conclusions.

Outcome one:
Thought: He/she deliberately ignored me. This must mean he/she doesn’t like me…
Feelings: Uneasy, insecure, upset…
Actions: Avoid gesturing to him/her next time; snap at my partner/kid/cat; raid the fridge to distract myself from feeling awful.

Outcome two:
Thought: He/she didn’t see me, because if she did, she would have acknowledged me…
Feelings: disappointed (would have loved to catch up), but otherwise fine…
Actions: Carry on with my day; send him/her a text or call later that day to touch base.

If the first outcome sounds more like something you’d see on a tv soap drama than something that you may actually experience in your own life, that’s OK. There will be some version of the same basic cascade that trips you up, too.

Once you start looking, you’ll start realising how powerful your interpretations to events are, and how instrumental they are in setting up your subsequent emotional and behavioural responses.

It’s all about challenging and changing your initial interpretations/thoughts. And because thoughts are often automatic and fleeting, the “entry point” to the CBT cascade is usually your emotions.

When you feel awful or unsettled after an interaction or event, it’s time to retrace your steps and check out your thinking.

Often, the thoughts you had about that event can be challenged, changed, and reframed into a healthier interpretation. In turn, the decisions, actions, and behaviours you make moving forward will be healthier and happier too.

CBT isn’t about “kidding yourself” and rewriting history to suit your own reality.

Nor is it about denying that sometimes really awful things do happen, and we very naturally feel and behave accordingly. CBT is about challenging our thoughts and interpretations, and finding new ones that are more “true”, reasonable, rational, and fair.

Next time you feel upset, angry, or generally “worked up” after an event or interaction with somebody, put the CBT theory to test. Retrace your steps to identify what thoughts you had about what happened. Then see how they paved the way for your resulting emotional reaction, and, in turn, the way you behaved. You will probably find that the CBT premise really does make sense.

If you would like to learn more about relationships, conflict resolution, communication, and how to build emotional and relationship health, contact Pamela, and let’s get started.