CBT is a common form of therapy short for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT focuses on the interconnection between thoughts, emotions and behavior. People participating in CBT learn to identify the thoughts that trigger their feelings and reactions. Oftentimes the thinking can be flawed, meaning inaccurate or unhelpful. Thinking errors can lead to or exacerbate anxiety and depression. One goal of CBT is to improve happiness and overall functioning by helping people catch their problematic thinking and begin to think about things in a different way. Before diving in to using a strategy to change one’s thinking first identify the thought. Once you have the thought in mind there are various cognitive strategies that can help adjust your thinking, a few of which are explained here. The differences can be subtle but as long as you are working to ensure that your thinking is not making things harder for you then you are on the right track. If you are a parent of a child with inaccurate or unhelpful thinking, you can use these strategies to help your child work through their thinking. You can always seek the support of a CBT therapist for yourself or your child as well.
Cognitive challenging can often start with telling yourself that just because you’re having that thought does not automatically make it true. This technique involves testing the accuracy of your thought. Ask yourself if it is true. If you think it is true can you be sure it is true? What is the evidence to support this thought? If the thought seems to be inaccurate or lack support then challenge it with a thought that is more accurate or a thought you know to be true. If you are supporting your child in challenging their thinking you could have them interview several people to see how accurate their thought is compared to other people’s experiences. For example, if the thought were “all dogs bite” they could find out about people’s experiences with dogs where no biting has occurred. The new thought that they would use to challenge the original thought might be “many dogs don’t bite.”
Cognitive restructuring is also referred to as reframing. Cognitive restructuring begins much the same way as cognitive challenging. Reframing or restructuring one’s thinking, however, involves generating a more balanced thought which may be more elaborate than purely directly challenging the thought. It involves coming up with a thought that more fully explains the situation by also looking at the situation through a different filter. We may be bringing a negative or worried filter to our thinking so we are trying to see things through a more optimistic or resilient filter instead. In the example of the “dogs bite” thought, reframing that thought might lead you to something like “though it is possible for any dog to bite, most dogs are friendly and safe to be around, and dogs that are not comfortable around you give you signs that they are not comfortable.”
Processing your thoughts involves looking for the meaning that you may be attaching to or that may be underlying your thoughts. Again first identify the thought causing you trouble. The type of thoughts that need to be “processed” are ones that are keeping you or your child stuck and holding you back. They have often become attached to negative beliefs about yourself. Processing is about asking yourself “what does it mean to me if that thought is true?” Processing is generally best done with the support of a CBT trained therapist.
Acceptance and Encouragement
Sometimes rather than changing your thoughts, accepting them can help you feel better. This means accepting the struggle you are having without feeling defeated by it. We can add on encouraging thoughts after our acceptance thought as well. If the thought was “this presentation is going to be so scary” the new thoughts could be “this presentation IS going to be scary AND I can do it.” Encouraging thoughts include thoughts such as “I can do it,” “I can handle it,” “I will get through it,” “I’ve got this.” Often adding the encouraging thought to the acceptance thought after the word “AND” helps you feel better able to handle the situation. These simple adjustments to how we are phrasing the words in our thoughts has the potential to make a huge difference.
Leaving Room for Thoughts to Change
Sometimes we can think in extremes that do not leave much room for the possibility of change. This approach is about tempering the thought with some key words. Maybe the thoughts are “this is always too hard” or “I can’t do it.” Adding words that make the thought less definitive can help leave room for the possibility of overcoming your struggles. You might add words like “yet” or “sometimes” so your thoughts become “sometimes this is so hard” or “I can’t do this YET.” This allows you or your child to believe in the possibility of success.