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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Introduction to CBT – Our Thoughts Matter

Did you ever watch a movie that made you feel an emotion? Perhaps you experienced fear as the camera moves down a dark and creepy corridor, frustration if the villain gets away, or joy when we see the happy ending. But have you ever stopped to wonder why we feel that way? How can a movie have such an impact on our emotions?

It is a very straightforward answer. Fear is not caused by being in a dark corridor. Fear is caused by what you think of being in a dark corridor. Your thoughts are powerful and can control your emotions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches us to manage our thoughts to control our emotions. Using CBT allows us to identify the thinking patterns that cause us pain, anger, or other emotions. It helps us challenge and reframe our thoughts to change the way we feel.  

Introduction to Thoughts

It is intuitive to understand that how you feel depends on the circumstances you are in. For example, we might feel happy, excited, or proud when something “good” happens or feel worried, sad, or angry if something bad happens.

Imagine, for example, that you are driving along the highway and another driver cuts into your lane. It would make sense that you feel mad because of that.

However, if situations were the cause of our emotions, we all would react to situations in the same way. However, this is not what happens, and people may respond differently to the same situation. For example, some people may become mad that they got cut off in traffic, while others may brush it off.

Different people might respond differently to the same situation because the situation itself does not cause emotion. Situations do not cause specific emotions. There’s a gap between a situation and an emotion that makes all the difference — Our thoughts. It’s how we perceive the situation that makes all the difference.

Let’s say that two different people get cut off while driving on the highway. They can both experience the same situation but have different reactions:

Different thoughts can produce different emotions, as shown in this example.

Note: Exploring these examples more will show that emotions can also cause different behaviors. An angry person might flick off the other driver, while the other person may quickly forget all about it.

But how can we have these automatic reactions without even noticing? It’s due to our automatic thoughts.

Automatic Thoughts

We often overlook thoughts because they occur outside of our conscious awareness. They happen automatically, and if we constantly have the same kinds of thoughts, our minds begin to tune them out. We can think of automatic thoughts as a sound that you hear but don’t often notice, like the sound of your AC.

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Can you imagine something you do so often that it feels second nature? For example, when you first start driving, you need to learn how to handle the steering wheel, differentiate between the accelerator and brake pedals, make good turns (so they are not too wide), parallel parking, etc. But as you become more comfortable with driving, things become automatic. Before you know it, you’re not even thinking about the steps you need to take to start the car and begin driving – you’ve become a master of the accelerator and brake pedals, you can shift gears with ease, and you can even drive with one hand. It’s all like autopilot; you just do it without thinking about it.

When our brains run on autopilot, it can be beneficial because it frees up brain space to provide more resources for other tasks. However, there is a downside. Thoughts that occur automatically outside of our awareness, automatic thoughts, are not always accurate; hence even if the automatic thoughts are not rational nor have enough evidence, they are automatically accepted as fact. 

Irrational Thoughts

The brain tries to be as resourceful as possible; hence, it tries to take shortcuts. One of its shortcuts is guessing. For example, imagine you text somebody, but they don’t respond for a very long while. Your brain will try to make sense of it and guess the reason why they are not responding. Your brains might conclude something like, “oh, they are probably busy,” or your brain could figure something else like “they haven’t replied to my text; they’re angry at me.”

These guesses may sometimes be correct, but not always. Sometimes, the guesses our brains take are irrational thoughts. Irrational thoughts are usually not supported by evidence. Suppose we are not aware of our thoughts. In that case, even irrational thoughts could become automatic, and irrational automatic thoughts can directly negatively impact how we feel and behave. Still, we can’t understand why we feel or act a certain way.

For example, if somebody has developed the automatic thought of “people don’t like me,” this thought will begin to creep into and affect every aspect of their life. When their friend doesn’t return a text, they feel sad; when a loved one rolls their eye because they are in a bad mood, they feel disliked; even if they receive a compliment, it may feel fake or insincere.

Their irrational thought influenced their interpretation of the events — Their understanding was not accurate. 

CBT aims to help identify, challenge, and reframe irrational thought patterns. Reframing irrational thoughts and replacing them with rational thoughts will directly positively impact how we think, feel, and behave.

The foundation of CBT is the importance of thoughts and how they interact with our feelings and behaviors. When we replace irrational thoughts with rational ones, our emotions and behaviors will better match the situations at hand. Managing our thoughts and interpretation of events will lead to healthier behaviors and reactions to everyday situations.

*All the information published in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Any information provided here is offered in generic form. Please consult your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.

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