If you’ve ever been to a therapy, you’ve probably been asked to try this technique. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological therapy that focuses on solutions by addressing your thoughts on the spot to modify existing damaging patterns in your brain. Its main objective is to make you pause and recognize how much emphasis you put on a negative or anxiety-inducing thought, at any given moment, and replace it with a positive belief. This is to keep you from reinforcing those neural pathways, which have become very familiar but which put you in a negative cycle of behaviours.
Personally, while this sounds great and simple enough, it has been very difficult for me to be a friend to myself outside of my therapist’s office. CBT has been the main treatment used for anxiety and depression for the last 30 to 40 years and its effectiveness has been demonstrated in different studies. Moreover, its effects are not reduced to a session directed by a professional – it can be useful for and tried by anyone. It can help conquer impostor syndrome and similar negative beliefs about ourselves that lead us to think we do not deserve the good things we already have or which may come to us.
So, how do we reap the benefits of this form of talk therapy? First, we should know that evidence backs up improvement in people suffering from PTSD, eating disorders, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder and, of course, anxiety and depression. Once we commit to knowing that this technique can really help us to get better, regardless of the situation we’re going through, we are ready to take steps to incorporate this into our daily lives. Let’s go over some recommendations set out below.
Acknowledge your negative patterns
A common saying amongst psychologists goes: “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Essentially, it means that our brains create patterns by repetition. If you’ve ever been hiking, you’ve probably seen natural paths that have been formed on the ground because people walk there all the time – and, most likely, you followed these paths rather than trying to form your own. The same thing happens in our brain: our thoughts will follow the path of least resistance, the path that is familiar.
For example, if you’ve thought to be bad at public speaking ever since the presentations done at school, then each time you’re tasked with preparing a presentation at work, the same neural path will light up in your brain, making you think that you’re not good enough, no matter how far that may be from the truth today. The principle behind dealing with these negative thoughts is that we gradually become able to recognize that these ideas are not serving us well, and that it is possible to move from them and keep them from controlling our lives.
Stop yourself in your (overfamiliar) tracks
Part of the challenge of CBT is to be brave enough to leave the familiarity and virtual comfort of a self-deprecating belief. To get out of your comfort zone and know that you need to leave behind all the patterns that have been holding you back. For example, in the same public speaking scenario, you will need to venture outwards and confront yourself to, ultimately, realize that you’re capable of doing things with preparation and time. Main takeaway here is to learn to stop when the thought seems too overwhelming. You can ask questions like “is it really that bad?” or “what is the worst thing that could happen?” Use these as cues for grounding yourself within the reality of the moment.
Replace negative with positive
Once the first two steps are complete, you’re ready to start adding some good into the mix. You now have the chance to be a great friend to yourself and begin creating those neural pathways that will lead you to a positive thinking pattern and a better outcome in real life. To start with, try replacing a self-damaging belief with the exact opposite and see how that works for you. For example, transform “I’m not good at making friends” to “I’m good at making friends”. In time, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating a new pathway in your brain. Evidence supports this. Eventually, your brain will be used to these new patterns to the point that they will be engrained in your mind and become much easier to follow by your future self.
If it’s not possible or you don’t feel ready to work with a therapist, try the CBT by yourself. It is a transformative process that can end up turning your life around. If you have the privilege to work with a professional, follow their instructions outside their office too and accelerate your progress. I believe in you!