The human mind is capable of some powerful and extraordinary things. According to the Stanford Mind and Body Lab, the mind is not a passive observer, but actually changes reality.
For example, the “placebo effect” is when the mind believes a fake treatment is real and causes a physical response in the body. This ability of the brain to essentially create a false reality can also influence our mental and emotional health.
Most people don't spend much time reflecting on how, what, or why they think. After all, who wants to think about thinking?
It turns out that thoughts have a whole lot more to do with our emotions and behaviors than we realize.
How Are Thought, Emotion, and Behavior Connected?
Thoughts can indeed be a catalyst for our realities. What you think directly influences how you feel and behave.
For example, if you have self-doubt, you may not feel qualified for a position you want. Because you don’t feel qualified, you’re likely to be more discouraged about the possibility of applying.
Perhaps you’ll put in less effort because you don’t believe you’d get that promotion anyways. You may even withdraw your application, or fail to turn it in at all. In the end, the corresponding actions to your beliefs are what actually prevents you from getting the position. But it’s too late—because of the outcome, your beliefs are reinforced.
Once a person draws a conclusion about themselves, they’re likely to do two things:
They’ll look for evidence that reinforces their beliefs.
They’ll discredit anything that opposes that belief.
This turns into a cycle that becomes self-defeating. Thankfully, there’s a way to break this negative cycle. It’s called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and it’s widely accessible.
What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?
CBT is one of the most widely studied and applied forms of psychotherapy. It follows the idea that what we think, how we feel, and how we behave are all interconnected.
CBT originated in the 1960s from the work of psychiatrist Aaron Beck. Beck noted that certain types of thinking were more likely to contribute towards problems.
With this realization, Beck developed a style of therapy that focused on the identification, recognition, and management of unhealthy thoughts. Using these three “pillars” of CBT, he combined two therapeutic approaches: cognitive and behavioral therapy.
What Is Cognitive Therapy?
The word “cognitive,” originally comes from the Latin word, “cognoscere,” which means “to recognize.” The point of cognitive therapy is to, first, recognize healthy and unhealthy thoughts, attitudes, and expectations. Once you have a clear idea as to what these are, you’re able to change false or upsetting beliefs.
Changing beliefs can be helpful because it's often the significance we attach to situations—rather the situations themselves—that causes problems. Charles R. Swindoll says it this way:
“Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it.”
A person who always expects the worst in every situation is likely to consciously or subconsciously bring about a miserable situation. This is also known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” and can make life difficult for both the individual and those around them.
Cognitive therapy helps people learn to replace dysfunctional thought patterns with more realistic and healthy ones. Once people are able to think more clearly and rationally, their immediate emotional responses tend to be less harmful.
What Is Behavioral Therapy?
Behavioral therapy originates from American “behaviorism.” Behaviorism assumes that since most human behavior is learned, it can be unlearned.
Behavioral therapy works to change maladaptive behaviors, by reinforcing desirable behaviors and eliminating unwanted ones. Unlike therapy models that are rooted in insight, behavioral therapy is problem-focused and action-oriented.
In the first stage of behavioral therapy, a person discovers which behavioral patterns tend to intensify their problems. In the second stage, the person works on changing their behavioral habits and adopting healthier practices.
A person with depression may withdraw from others or stop doing activities they once enjoyed. As a result, they feel even more unhappy and isolated, leading to more withdrawal, and the depressive cycle continues. Behavioral therapy helps to identify this pattern and develop ways to break the cycle.
What Is The CBT Treatment Model?
The CBT model is based on the relationship between a person’s cognition and their emotion and behavior. It is a structured treatment plan that generally only lasts 5-20 sessions.
CBT Treatment focuses on addressing three aspects of cognition that negatively impact emotion and behavior:
Schemas (Underlying Beliefs)
What Are Automatic Thoughts?
Automatic thoughts refer to a person’s immediate interpretation of events. They shape the person’s emotions and actions in response to the event.
CBT is based on the observation that some people have exaggerated, distorted, mistaken, or unrealistic automatic thoughts. When people suffer from these dysfunctional automatic thoughts, their emotions and behaviors are also affected.
For example, imagine a coworker doesn't say hello when you pass them in the hall. Automatic thoughts like "I've done something wrong" or "this person doesn't like me" will affect your mood. You may feel upset and try to avoid this coworker in the future.
Healthier thoughts might be along the lines of "they're in a hurry" or "they haven't had their coffee yet." It’s doubtful these thoughts would impact your mood and you likely wouldn’t avoid this coworker in the future.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions refer to errors in logical reasoning. Like automatic thoughts, they aren’t always helpful in shaping your emotions and behaviors.
For example, let’s consider the following situation. You made dinner plans with a close friend, but they canceled. Thoughts like, “they always do this,” “my whole night’s been ruined,” or “this is my fault” are all cognitive distortions.
Below are some commonly seen cognitive distortions.
Dichotomous thinking: seeing things as black or white, with no shades of gray in between
Overgeneralization: making a sweeping conclusion about something that’s happened only a handful of times
Selective abstraction: focusing entirely on one aspect of a situation while ignoring the rest
Disqualifying the positive: ignoring positives that might conflict with negative views of something
Mind reading: assuming the thoughts and intentions of other people
Fortune telling: assuming that things will turn out a certain way, before they ever happen
Minimization: positive things are treated like they don’t matter
Catastrophizing: exaggerating the reality of situations or focusing on the worst possible outcome, no matter how unlikely it might be.
Emotional reasoning: making decisions and arguments based on your feelings instead of reality.
Should statements: focusing on what you think “should” be instead of what it actually is
Personalization: blaming yourself or others for things outside of control
What Are Underlying Beliefs?
Underlying beliefs shape a person’s perception and interpretation of events. Our brains categorize information as we go through life experiences, and turn this information into schemas.
“Schemas” are templates that make up the superficial layer of automatic thoughts. Stereotypes are a common example of schemas, but schemas can be many other things.
In CBT, beliefs are understood in two categories: core and intermediate.
Core beliefs are:
Central ideas about oneself and the world
The most fundamental level of belief
Global, rigid, and assumptive
Intermediate beliefs are:
Assumptions, attitudes, and rules
Influenced by the core beliefs
Below, you can see the relationship between core and intermediate beliefs: