We often say things like "I don't know why I feel anxious," or "All of a sudden, I felt so mad... out of nowhere!" or "I don't know why I acted the way I did." Here's a question: what were you thinking at the time?
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy approach that emphasizes the role of automatic thoughts in feelings and behaviour, and suggests that our feelings and behaviour aren't caused by people, situations, and events, but are instead caused by our thoughts about people, situations, and events.
Example: say your parents call three different times in one evening. How do you feel? If you think, "They're always trying to run my life," you might feel irritated or indignant and avoid returning their calls; if you think, "They love me and are excited for my upcoming trip home," you might feel warm and fuzzy and call them back the next morning; if you think "They're trying to reach me because something bad happened," you might feel worried and call them back that night even if it's late.
Another example: your work colleague walks by in the hall and doesn't say hi. If you think, "He thinks he's awesome now that he got that promotion," you might feel insulted and gossip about it with your office mate; if you think, "He's probably distracted; I heard his daughter's sick," you might feel sympathetic and send a quick email to ask how he's doing; if you think, "He's still mad about that mistake I made last week," you might feel anxious and avoid running into him again. In each of these cases, your reaction isn't the direct consequence of the event, but is the consequence of your thoughts and your interpretation of the event.
CBT is based on three principles: thoughts affect behaviour; thoughts can be monitored and altered; and changing thoughts can change behaviour. Learning the CBT lesson that emotions and behaviour don't come out of nowhere can help people who experience a lot of upsetting emotions or who are unhappy with certain elements of their behaviour gain some control over their feelings and actions. Cognitive-behavioural therapists first teach clients that a lot of distress is created by distorted or unhelpful thoughts, and then help clients adjust their thinking by teaching them to evaluate the validity of their thoughts and generate possible alternative thoughts.
CBT has proven to be an effective treatment for a variety of anxiety, mood, sleep, personality, substance use, and eating disorders, as well as for problems like chronic pain, stress, anger, and relationship issues. As a CBT student, client, and therapist, I'm here to tell you that it works. I believe in it and I recommend it.
Up next: examples of specific CBT concepts and interventions.