Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies
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One of the central messages of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is that your thoughts, your attitudes, and the beliefs you hold have a big effect on the way you interpret the world around you and on how you feel. So, if you’re feeling excessively bad, chances are that you’re thinking badly — or, at least, in an unhelpful way. Of course, you probably don’t intend to think in an unhelpful way, and no doubt you’re largely unaware that you do.

Thinking errors are slips in thinking that everyone makes from time to time. Just as a poor signal stop your phone from functioning effectively, so thinking errors prevent you from making accurate assessments of your experiences. Thinking errors lead you to get the wrong end of the stick, jump to conclusions and assume the worst. Thinking errors get in the way of, or cause you to distort, the facts. However, you do have the ability to step back and take another look at the way you’re thinking and set yourself straight.

Catastrophizing: Turning mountains back Into molehills

Catastrophizing: Turning mountains back Into molehills

Catastrophizing is taking a relatively minor negative event and imagining all sorts of disasters resulting from that one small event, as we sum up in the figure.

Consider these examples of catastrophizing:

  • You’re at a party and you accidentally stumble headlong into the ice sculpture. After you slide your way across the floor and to the bathroom to clean up, you scurry home and conclude that everyone at the party witnessed your little trip and laughed at you.
  • You’re waiting for your teenage daughter to return home after an evening at the cinema with friends. The clock strikes 10 p.m., and you hear no reassuring rattle of her key in the door. By 10:05 p.m., you start imagining her accepting a lift home from a friend who drives recklessly. At 10:10 p.m., you’re convinced she’s been involved in a head-on collision and paramedics are at the scene. By 10:15 p.m., you’re weeping over her grave.
  • Your new partner declines an invitation to have dinner with your parents. Before giving him a chance to explain his reasons, you put down the phone and decide that this is his way of telling you the relationship’s over. Furthermore, you imagine that right now he’s ringing friends and telling them what a mistake it was dating you. You decide you’re never going to find another partner and will die old and lonely.

Catastrophizing leads many an unfortunate soul to misinterpret a social faux pas as a social disaster, a late arrival as a car accident or a minor disagreement as total rejection.

Nip catastrophic thinking in the bud by recognizing it for what it is — just thoughts. When you find yourself thinking of the worst possible scenario, try the following strategies:

  • Put your thoughts in perspective.
  • Consider less terrifying explanations.
  • Weigh up the evidence.
  • Focus on what you can do to cope with the situation, and the people or resources that can come to your aid.

No matter how great a calamity you create in your mind, the world’s unlikely to end because of it — even if your catastrophic fear comes to pass. You’re probably far more capable of surviving embarrassing and painful events than you give yourself credit for — human beings can be very resilient. Sometimes you just need to have faith that your coping resources will be there if and when you need them.

All-or-nothing thinking: Finding somewhere in-between

All-or-nothing thinking: Finding somewhere in-between

All-or-nothing or black-or-white thinking is extreme thinking that can lead to extreme emotions and behaviors. People either love you or hate you, right? Something’s either perfect or a disaster. You’re either responsibility-free or totally to blame. Sound sensible? We hope not!

Unfortunately, humans fall into the all-or-nothing trap too easily:

  • Imagine you’re trying to eat healthily and you cave in to the temptation of a doughnut. All-or-nothing thinking may lead you to conclude that your plan is in ruins and then to go on to eat the other 11 doughnuts in the pack.
  • You’re studying a degree course and you fail one module. All-or-nothing thinking makes you decide that the whole endeavor is pointless. Either you get the course totally right or it’s just a write-off.

Consider the humble thermometer as your guide to overcoming the tendency of all-or-nothing thinking. A thermometer reads degrees of temperature, not only “hot” and “cold.” Think like a thermometer – in degrees, not extremes. You can use the following pointers to help you change your thinking:

  • Be realistic. You can’t possibly get through life without making mistakes. One doughnut doesn’t a healthy diet ruin. Remind yourself of your goal, forgive yourself for the minor slip, and resume your diet.
  • Develop “both–and” reasoning skills. An alternative to all-or-nothing thinking is both–and. You need to mentally allow two seeming opposites to exist together. You can both succeed in your overall educational goals and fail a test or two. Life is not a case of being either a success or a failure. You can both assume that you’re an okay person as you are and strive to change.

All-or-nothing thinking can sabotage goal-directed behavior. You’re far more likely to throw in the towel at the first sign of something blocking your goal when you refuse to allow a margin for error. Beware of “either/or” statements and global labels such as “good” and “bad” or “success” and “failure.” Neither people nor life situations are often that cut and dried.

Fortune-telling: Stepping away from the crystal ball

Fortune-telling: Stepping away from the crystal ball

Often, clients tell us after they’ve done something they were anxious about that the actual event wasn’t half as bad as they’d predicted. Predictions are the problem here.

You probably don’t possess extrasensory perceptions that allow you to see into the future. You probably can’t see into the future even with the aid of a crystal ball. And yet, you may try to predict future events. Unfortunately, the predictions you make may be unduly negative. Here are some examples:

  • You’ve been feeling a bit depressed lately and you aren’t enjoying yourself like you used to. Someone from work invites you to a party, but you decide that if you go you won’t have a good time. The food will be unpalatable, the music will be irksome, and the other guests are sure to find you boring. So, you opt to stay in and bemoan the state of your social life.
  • You fancy the bloke who sells you coffee every morning on the way to the office, and you’d like to go out with him on a date. You predict that if you ask him, you’ll be so anxious that you’ll say something stupid. Anyway, he’s bound to say “no thanks” – someone that attractive must surely be in a relationship.
  • You always thought that parkour would be fun, but you’ve got an anxious disposition. If you try the sport, you’re sure to lose your nerve at a crucial moment and just end up with a bruised ego and a physical injury.

You’re better off letting the future unfold without trying to guess how it may turn out. Put the dustcover back on the crystal ball, sell the Ouija board on eBay, leave the tarot cards alone, and try the following strategies instead:

  • Test out your predictions.
  • Be prepared to take risks.
  • Understand that your past experiences don’t determine your future experiences.

Typically, fortune-telling stops you from taking action. It can also become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you keep telling yourself that you won’t enjoy that party, you’re liable to make that prediction come true. Same goes for meeting new people and trying new things.

Mind-reading: Taking your guesses with a pinch of salt

Mind-reading: Taking your guesses with a pinch of salt

So, you think you know what other people are thinking, do you? With mind-reading, the tendency is often to assume that others are thinking negative things about you or have negative motives and intentions.

Here are some examples of mind-reading tendencies:

  • You’re chatting with someone, and he looks over your shoulder as you’re speaking, breaks eye contact and (perish the thought) yawns. You conclude immediately that the other person thinks your conversation is mind-numbing and that he’d rather be talking to someone else.
  • Your boss advises that you book some time off to use up your annual leave. You decide that he’s saying this because he thinks your work is rubbish and wants the opportunity to interview for your replacement while you’re on leave.
  • You pass a neighbor on the street. He says a quick hello but doesn’t look very friendly or pleased to see you. You think that he must be annoyed with you about your dog howling at the last full moon and is making plans to report you to environmental health.

You can never know for certain what another person is thinking, so you’re wise to pour salt on your negative assumptions. Stand back and take a look at all of the evidence at hand. Take control of your tendency to mind-read by trying the following:

  • Generate some alternative reasons for what you see.
  • Consider that your guesses may be wrong. Are your fears really about your boss’s motives, or do they concern your own insecurity about your abilities at work?
  • Get more information (if appropriate). Ask your neighbor whether your dog kept him up all night, and talk to your vet about ways to calm your pet next time the moon waxes.

You tend to mind-read what you fear most. Mind-reading is a bit like putting a slide in a slide projector. What you project or imagine is going on in other people’s minds is very much based on what’s already in yours.

Emotional reasoning: Reminding yourself that feelings aren’t facts

Emotional reasoning: Reminding yourself that feelings aren’t facts

Surely, we’re wrong about this one. Surely your feelings are real hard evidence of the way things are? Actually, no! Often, relying too heavily on your feelings as a guide leads you off the reality path. Here are some examples of emotional reasoning:

  • Your partner has been spending long nights at the office with a co-worker for the past month. You feel jealous and suspicious of your partner. Based on these feelings, you conclude that your partner’s having an affair with his co-worker.
  • You feel guilty out of the blue. You conclude that you must have done something wrong; otherwise, you wouldn’t be feeling guilty.
  • You wake up feeling anxious, with a vague sense of dread. You assume that there must be something seriously wrong in your life and search your mind frantically for the source of your ill feeling.

Often your feelings are simply due to a thought or memory that you may not even be totally aware of having. Other times they can be symptoms of another disorder, such as depression or anxiety problems.

Some of the feelings you experience upon waking from sleep are left over from dreams that you may or may not remember. As a rule of thumb, it pays to be somewhat skeptical about the validity of your feelings in the first instance. Your feelings can be misleading.

When you spot emotional reasoning taking over your thoughts, take a step back and try the following:

  1. Take notice of your thoughts.
  2. Ask yourself how you’d view the situation if you were feeling calmer.
  3. Give yourself time to allow your feelings to subside.
  4. If you can’t find any obvious and immediate source of your unpleasant feelings — overlook them.
    Get into the shower despite your sense of dread, for example. If a concrete reason to be anxious does exist, it won’t get dissolved in the shower. If your anxiety is all smoke and mirrors, you may well find it washes down the drain.

The problem with viewing your feelings as factual is that you stop looking for contradictory information — or for any additional information at all. Balance your emotional reasoning with a little more looking at the facts that support and contradict your views.

Overgeneralizing: Avoiding the part/whole error

Overgeneralizing: Avoiding the part/whole error

Overgeneralizing is the error of drawing global conclusions from one or more events. When you find yourself thinking “always,” “never,” “people are . . .” or “the world’s . . .,” you may well be overgeneralizing.

You might recognize overgeneralizing in the following examples:

  • You feel down. When you get into your car to go to work, it doesn’t start. You think to yourself, “Things like this are always happening to me. Nothing ever goes right,” which makes you feel even more gloomy.
  • You become angry easily. Travelling to see a friend, you’re delayed by a fellow passenger who cannot find the money to pay her train fare. You think, “This is typical! Other people are just so stupid,” and you become tense and angry.
  • You tend to feel guilty easily. You yell at your child for not understanding his homework and then decide that you’re a thoroughly rotten parent.

Situations are rarely so stark or extreme that they merit terms like “always” and “never.” Rather than overgeneralizing, consider the following:

  • Get a little perspective.
  • Suspend judgement.
  • Be specific.

Shouting at your child in a moment of stress no more makes you a rotten parent than singing him a favourite lullaby makes you a perfect parent. Condemning yourself on the basis of making a mistake does nothing to solve the problem, so be specific and steer clear of global conclusions. Change what you think you can and need to but also forgive yourself (and others) for singular errors or misdeeds.

Labeling: Giving up the rating game

Labeling: Giving up the rating game

Labels, and the process of labeling people and events, are everywhere. For example, people who have low self-esteem may label themselves as “worthless,” “inferior,” or “inadequate.”

If you label other people as “no good” or “useless,” you’re likely to become angry with them. Or perhaps you label the world as “unsafe” or “totally unfair.” The error here is that you’re globally rating things that are too complex for a definitive label. The following are examples of labeling:

  • You read a distressing article in the newspaper about a rise in crime in your city. The article activates your belief that you live in a thoroughly dangerous place, which contributes to you feeling anxious about going out.
  • You receive a poor mark for an essay. You start to feel low and label yourself as a failure.
  • You become angry when someone cuts in front of you in a traffic queue. You label the other driver as a total loser for his bad driving.

Strive to avoid labeling yourself, other people and the world around you. Accept that they’re complex and ever-changing. Recognise evidence that doesn’t fit your labels, in order to help you weaken your conviction in your global rating. For example,

  • Allow for varying degrees. Think about it: The world isn’t a dangerous place but rather a place that has many different aspects with varying degrees of safety and risk.
  • Celebrate complexities. All human beings — you included — are unique, multifaceted and ever-changing.

When you label a person or aspect of the world in a global way, you exclude potential for change and improvement. Accepting yourself as you are is a powerful first step towards self-improvement.

Making demands: Thinking flexibly

Making demands: Thinking flexibly

Albert Ellis, founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy, one of the first cognitive-behavioural therapies, places demands at the very heart of emotional problems. Thoughts and beliefs that contain words like “must,” “should,” “need,” “ought,” “have to,” are often problematic because they’re extreme and rigid.

The inflexibility of the demands you place on yourself, the world around you and other people often means you don’t adapt to reality as well as you could. Consider these possible examples:

  • You believe that you must have the approval of your friends and colleagues. This leads you to feel anxious in many social situations and drives you to try to win everyone’s approval — possibly at great personal cost.
  • You think that because you try very hard to be kind and considerate to others, they really ought to be just as kind and considerate in return. Because your demand is not realistic — sadly, other people are governed by their own priorities — you often feel hurt about your friends (or even strangers) not acting the way you do yourself.
  • You believe that you absolutely should never let people down. Therefore, you rarely put your own welfare first. At work, you do more than your fair share because you don’t assert yourself, and so you often end up feeling stressed and depressed.

Holding flexible preferences about yourself, other people and the world in general is the healthy alternative to inflexible rules and demands. Rather than making demands on yourself, the world and others, try the following techniques:

  • Pay attention to language. Replace words like “must,” “need” and “should” with “prefer,” “wish,” and “want.”
  • Limit approval seeking. Can you manage to have a satisfying life even if you don’t get the approval of everyone you seek it from?
  • Understand that the world doesn’t play to your rules. In fact, other people tend to have their own rulebooks.
  • Retain your standards, ideals and preferences and ditch your rigid demands about how you, others and the world “have to” be.

When you hold rigid demands about the way things “have got to be,” you have no margin for deviation or error. You leave yourself vulnerable to experiencing exaggerated emotional disturbance when things in life just don’t go your way.

Mental filtering: Keeping an open mind

Mental filtering: Keeping an open mind

Mental filtering is a bias in the way you process information, in which you acknowledge only information that fits with a belief you hold. The process is much like a filter on a camera lens that allows in only certain kinds of light. Information that doesn’t fit tends to be ignored. If you think any of the following, you’re making the mental filtering thinking error:

  • You believe you’re a failure, so you tend to focus on your mistakes at work and overlook successes and achievements. At the end of the week, you often feel disappointed about your lack of achievement — but this is probably largely the result of you not paying attention to your successes.
  • You believe you’re unlikeable and really notice each time your friend is late to call back or seems too busy to see you. You tend to disregard the ways in which people act warmly towards you, thus sustaining your view that you’re unlikeable.

To combat mental filtering, look more closely at situations you feel down about. Deliberately collecting evidence that contradicts your negative thoughts can help you to correct your information-processing bias. Try the following:

  • Examine your filters closely. For example, are you sifting your achievements through an “I’m a failure” filter? If so, then only failure-related information gets through.
  • Gather evidence. Imagine you’re collecting evidence for a court case to prove that your negative thought isn’t true. What evidence do you cite?

If you only ever take in information that fits with your negative thinking, you can very easily end up reinforcing undesirable thinking habits. The fact that you don’t see the positive stuff about yourself, or your experiences, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Disqualifying the positive: Keeping the baby and throwing out the bathwater

Disqualifying the positive: Keeping the baby and throwing out the bathwater

Disqualifying the positive is related to the biased way that people can process information. Disqualifying the positive is a mental response to a positive event that transforms it into a neutral or negative event.

The following are examples of disqualifying the positive:

  • You convince yourself that you’re worthless and unlovable. You respond to a work promotion by thinking, “This doesn’t count, because anyone could get this sort of thing.” The result: Instead of feeling pleased, you feel quite disappointed.
  • You think you’re pathetic and feel low. A friend tells you you’re a very good friend, but you disqualify this in your mind by thinking, “She’s only saying that because she feels sorry for me. I really am pathetic.”

Hone your skills for accepting compliments and acknowledging your good points. You can try the following strategies to improve your skills:

  • Become aware of your responses to positive “data.” Practice acknowledging and accepting positive feedback and acknowledging good points about yourself, others and the world.
  • Practice accepting a compliment graciously with a simple thank you. Rejecting a sincerely delivered compliment is rather like turning down a gift. Steer your thinking towards taking in positive experiences.

If you frequently disqualify or distort your positive attributes or experiences, you can easily sustain a negative belief, even in the face of overwhelming positive evidence.

Low frustration tolerance: Realizing you can bear the ‘unbearable’

Low frustration tolerance: Realizing you can bear the ‘unbearable’

Low frustration tolerance refers to the error of assuming that when something’s difficult to tolerate, it’s “intolerable.” This thinking error means magnifying discomfort and not tolerating temporary discomfort when it’s in your interest to do so for longer-term benefit.

The following are examples of low frustration tolerance:

  • You often procrastinate on college assignments, thinking, “It’s just too much hassle. I’ll do it later when I feel more in the mood.” You tend to wait until the assignment’s nearly due and it becomes too uncomfortable to put off any longer. Unfortunately, waiting until the last moment means that you can rarely put as much time and effort into your coursework as you need to in order to reach your potential.
  • You want to overcome your anxiety of travelling away from home by facing your fear directly. And yet, each time you try to travel farther on the train, you become anxious, and think “This is so horrible, I can’t stand it,” and quickly return home, which reinforces your fear rather than helping you experience travel as less threatening.

The best way to overcome low frustration tolerance is to foster an alternative attitude of high frustration tolerance. You can achieve this way of thinking by trying the following:

  • Pushing yourself to do things that are uncomfortable or unpleasant.
  • Giving yourself messages that emphasise your ability to withstand pain. To combat a fear of travel, you can remind yourself that feeling anxious is really unpleasant, but you can stand it.

Telling yourself you can’t stand something has two effects. First, it leads you to focus more on the discomfort you’re experiencing. Second, it leads you to underestimate your ability to cope with discomfort. Many things can be difficult to tolerate, but rating them as “intolerable” often makes situations seem more daunting than they really are.

Personalizing: Removing yourself from the centre of the universe

Personalizing: Removing yourself from the centre of the universe

Personalizing involves interpreting events as being related to you personally and overlooking other factors. This can lead to emotional difficulties, such as feeling hurt easily or feeling unnecessarily guilty.

Here are some examples of personalising:

  • You may tend to feel guilty if you know a friend is upset and you can’t make him feel better. You think, “If I was really a good friend, I’d be able to cheer him up. I’m obviously letting him down.”
  • You feel hurt when a friend you meet in a shop leaves quickly after saying only a hurried ‘hello’. You think, “He was obviously trying to avoid talking to me. I must have offended him somehow.”

You can tackle personalising by considering alternative explanations that don’t revolve around you. Think about the following examples:

  • Imagine what else may contribute to the outcome you’re assuming personal responsibility for. Your friend may have lost his job or be suffering from depression. Despite your best efforts to cheer him up, these factors are outside your control.
  • Consider why people may be responding to you in a certain way. Don’t jump to the conclusion that someone’s response relates directly to you. For example, your friend may be having a difficult day or be in a big hurry – he may even feel sorry for not stopping to talk to you.

Because you really aren’t the centre of the universe, look for explanations of events that have little or nothing to do with you.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Rhena Branch is an accredited CBT practitioner, supervisor and trainer who has trained hundreds of counselors. She is currently a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.

Rob Willson, PhD, is a cognitive behavioural therapist with over 25 years experience. He teaches and supervises internationally on CBT for OCD and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

Rhena Branch is an accredited CBT practitioner, supervisor and trainer who has trained hundreds of counselors. She is currently a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.

Rob Willson, PhD, is a cognitive behavioural therapist with over 25 years experience. He teaches and supervises internationally on CBT for OCD and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

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