If you think about the world ending tomorrow, it does not mean it will happen. The problem is, if you think it, and you believe it, you will surely feel the emotional repercussions. The goal in CBT is to help you think ACCURATELY and HELPFULLY about what is going on (not necessarily positively). Research tells us that when a person is thinking accurately, they are more likely to experience less emotional distress, even when the accurate thoughts aren’t positive. Sometimes distressing thoughts that we have are accurate although it may not be helpful to dwell on them. In CBT, you will learn how to problem solve when your distressing thoughts are accurate and learn how to move towards more helpful ways of thinking.
A person struggling with anxiety and depression is more likely to fall into thinking traps called cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are common errors in thinking that we all experience from time to time. For example, the thought “I never do anything right” could be a form of ‘all-or-nothing thinking’ where you forget about the ‘grey area’ and tend to think in extremes. A more accurate thought might be: “Sometimes I make mistakes at work and sometimes I do all right”. Which thought do you think would cause more distress? A CBT therapist will help you identify cognitive distortions and guide you in exploring these and learning more helpful and accurate ways of thinking.
Learning how to identify and respond to automatic thoughts is one way that your CBT therapist will help you learn to cope with the emotions that these thoughts create. Automatic thoughts are not the only types of thoughts that we have. Automatic thoughts are products of deeper level thoughts and beliefs that we all have. Throughout our lives we learn from our environments: parents, teachers, friends, media, past experiences and more. All of these influences shape the way that we see the world, other people and ourselves on a much deeper level. These beliefs are called core beliefs and they become so ingrained that they serve as a filter to all of our day-to-day experiences creating the more ‘surface-level’ automatic thoughts.
Imagine an adult that grew up with parents who experienced several divorces and several remarriages. He may come to believe that he is vulnerable to rejection because other people cannot be trusted. His core beliefs might be: I am vulnerable or I am helpless in relationships. If he is dating someone and this person brings up their desire for marriage, he may have automatic thoughts such as: ‘I can’t do this!’ or ‘I need more time!’. These thoughts would likely create anxiety. The automatic thoughts that he had did not happen randomly, they are directly related to what he has come to believe about himself and relationships through his past. In the moment of the situation, however, he is probably not thinking ‘I am vulnerable and feel helpless in my ability to make a relationship last because I never saw relationships last as I was growing up’.
These core beliefs can have a big influence on how a person responds to challenging situations day-to-day and can ultimately lead to significant problems in functioning. Often in CBT, your therapist will guide you to gain insight into what your core beliefs are, how they may be impacting your well-being and what your options are for trying to shift these.