How Changing Your Thoughts Can Improve Your Mental Health
When it comes to changing your mental health for the better, it really is the thought that counts. This is the message that you’ll likely receive if you consult with a practitioner of CBT – a form of talk therapy that, in recent times, has taken doctors, therapists and clients by storm. Here, we can take you through the ABCs of CBT, so that you can make an informed decision when it comes to accessing mental health services.
What Is CBT?
The main goal of CBT is to train clients to identify their own unhelpful thinking patterns, which empowers them to take control of their emotional lives and any unhealthy behaviours that they might be engaging in. CBT practitioners see you, the client, as the expert of your own psychological world. In other words, rather than making you dependent on someone else, CBT trains you to become your own therapist. With a little bit of guidance and support, we can all develop the tools and know-how to effect positive change in our own lives.
What Makes CBT So Popular?
In recent years, CBT has become one of the most popular forms of therapy, embraced wholeheartedly by therapists, clients and national health organizations (such as the NHS and Medicare) around the world. Part of the appeal of CBT is simply that it’s backed by science: there is a strong body of evidence showing that it can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions successfully. Additionally, compared to other forms of talk therapy, CBT is a relatively short-term intervention, with average treatment lengths ranging from 5 to 20 sessions. This means that CBT is attractive to those looking to save time and get the biggest bang for their buck, when compared to other forms of therapy.
On the other hand, CBT is present-focused, meaning that it attracts people who prefer to focus on their challenges in the here-and-now, rather than spending too much time talking about the past. Furthermore, the underlying philosophy of CBT, which we discuss below, makes sense to many people because it is straightforward, practical, logical and easy to understand.
How Does CBT Work?
CBT practitioners believe that psychological problems are most often caused and maintained by the unhelpful thoughts that we carry about ourselves, the world and the things that happen to us. Let’s take a look at this hypothetical example to get a deeper understanding of how CBT works.
Jenny lives in Sydney, and Karen lives in Melbourne. Both women have just gone through a difficult break-up. How do they respond? Jenny is shattered. She locks herself in her flat and spends the next week binge-eating, crying and feeling miserable. She stops socializing and tells herself that she is finished with dating because she’ll never find true love.
Karen also feels incredibly sad, but she responds a bit differently. To cheer herself up, she goes out for a healthy meal and some laughs with her friends. She knows that she has been hurt but she decides that after taking some time to pamper herself, she’s going to get back into dating and find the right person for her.
How is it possible that two people responded so differently to the same event? Why was Karen able to respond in a healthier and more adaptive way than Jenny? The answer is that Karen was able to adopt a helpful way of thinking about the situation: “This hurts, but I’m going to get through it.”
By contrast, Jenny interpreted the break-up in a less helpful way: “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me and no one will ever love me.” While Jenny’s way of thinking caused her to feel emotionally dejected and to behave in a way that would make her feel even more unhappy, Karen’s thought process allowed her to feel a bit more hopeful and to behave in a way which further improved her mood.
So, what does this tell us? Our ways of responding to situations are not a result of those situations, but rather of how we interpret those situations. This is the central idea of CBT: that by changing how we think, we can change our emotions and behaviours.
How is CBT Used to Treat Depression and Anxiety Disorders?
Clinical depression and anxiety disorders (including panic disorder, phobias, generalized anxiety and social anxiety) are among the most common and debilitating psychological problems around. In Australia, approximately one million adults are likely to have depression in any single year; whilst more than two million have anxiety disorders!
The Royal College of Psychiatrists considers CBT “one of the most effective treatments for conditions where anxiety or depression is the main problem.” CBT is particularly helpful here because people with these conditions are more likely than other people to have what psychologists call ‘cognitive distortions’. These are problematic and inaccurate thinking patterns which get people stuck into a vicious cycle of emotional distress leading to maladaptive thoughts. These thoughts then lead to even more emotional distress.
But there’s the good news: research shows that when it comes to depressive disorders, CBT is at least as effective than other forms of talk therapy. How does it compare to medication? CBT has been shown to be equally effective – and sometimes more effective – than taking antidepressants. For people who don’t respond to medication or therapy alone, combining the two can prove to be an incredibly efficient way of treating depression!
What about anxiety disorders? The picture is much the same: research shows that CBT is an incredibly effective tool for managing a variety of anxiety disorders; and CBT is more effective than medication in the case of certain conditions, such as social anxiety disorder.
Who Can Benefit From CBT?
CBT has been used as an effective treatment strategy for a huge range of psychological conditions, including bipolar disorder, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, personality disorders, panic disorder and substance use disorders. In addition, CBT has also been used as a way of assisting people who struggle with low self-esteem, anger and chronic health conditions such as diabetes, chronic pain and chronic fatigue.
In sum, the research all seems to say the same thing: CBT is an incredibly effective treatment choice for people carrying a wide range psychological disorders. But even for people who haven’t been referred by a doctor or psychologist, CBT can be beneficial more generally: it has the potential to be used for anyone wanting to achieve a greater degree of control over behaviours and emotional world.
How Will CBT Help Me?
Through CBT, you will have the chance to connect with an experienced therapist – someone who you can trust and develop a caring and emphatic relationship with. Together, you will set out your goals for therapy: this might involve treating a psychological disorder, a life-challenge, or any other area of your life that you’d like to change.
Your therapist will then train you to identify, challenge and change the problematic thinking patterns that can cause and exacerbate your psychological difficulties. You will learn first-hand how shifting your thoughts can help you shift your unhealthy behaviours and unpleasant feelings. You will also learn practical strategies for increasing the behaviours and skills that make it easier for you to cope with the challenges that you face.
Where To From Here?
CBT has clearly proved itself to be an effective treatment strategy for people all over the world, facing a variety of challenges. Research has shown this time and again. But is CBT for everyone? One thing to consider is that CBT relies on you making a commitment to the therapeutic process. The client plays an active a role and this can be hard work!
But putting in this effort will only benefit you and is ultimately what makes CBT so empowering and the effects so long-lasting. Our recommendation is to explore CBT only under the guidance of a trained and experienced therapist. So, if you’re looking to achieve greater control over your mental well-being, don’t deliberate! Speak to a qualified clinician can help you decide whether CBT is the right fit for you.
Many of our Psychologists at The Three Seas use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to treat various mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, grief, body image issues, and phobias.