One of the basic premises of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is that our thoughts determine our moods and emotions and how we feel. And if we can change our thoughts and change the way we think, then we’ll also change the way we feel, and as a result improve our moods, calm our emotions, and relieve symptoms of things like depression and anxiety.
Changing Negative Thoughts in CBT
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One of the basic premises of cognitive behavioral therapy is that our thoughts determine our moods and emotions and how we feel. And if we can change our thoughts, change the way we think, then we’ll also change the way we feel, and as a result improve our moods, calm our emotions, and relieve symptoms of things like depression and anxiety. And we looked at all of this in a previous video that I’ll link to in the description. And in this video we’re going to look at some characteristics of the new thoughts we want to replace our negative thoughts with. And then we’re going to go through some examples.
When we’re trying to change our thoughts in order to improve our moods and how we feel there are three main things we’re looking for in our new thoughts. Now one is that our new thought needs to be less negative than our original thought.
Our thoughts that contribute to our negative moods and emotions tend to be not just negative, but negatively biased. We’re looking at things from a very negative perspective and often seeing them in the most negative light possible. I’ll never get all of this work done and I’ll probably lose my job.
And so in order to improve our moods and how we feel our new thoughts don’t necessarily need to be positive, like this will be no problem and I’ll be done in no time. They just need to be less negative than our original, negatively biased thoughts. So maybe something like, it’s going to be a rough week and I’m not sure how I’ll finish everything, which isn’t really that positive, but it’s less negative than our original thought.
And the new thought needs to be believable. We have to be able to believe this new thought at least as much as the old thought. Because even if it’s negatively biased, we do believe our original thought, so we also need to be able to believe the new thought we’re trying to replace it with. And it helps if we can believe the new thought even more than the original thought, otherwise the old thought will tend to keep coming back up.
In order for us to be able to believe the new thought it needs to be accurate. At least as accurate as our original thought. Because even if our original thought is negatively biased we regard it as being accurate. And so it helps if our new thought can be even more accurate than the original thought in order for us to be able to convince ourselves that our new thought is more believable than our old thought.
So let’s look at some examples. If we’re worried about something that’s coming up and think, this is going to be terrible, I’m not going to be able to cope with it, we’re going to start feeling anxious.
And if we try to change our thought to something like, don’t worry, it’s going to be great, I’m going to love it, well that’s definitely less negative. And if we can actually get ourselves to think that, we’re probably not going to be anxious anymore. But can we actually believe this? Probably not.
When our thoughts are negatively biased, if we try to modify these thoughts but make our new thoughts equally biased in the opposite direction, it’s not going to help. Because not only won’t we believe these new thoughts if they’re overly positive, we can even make ourselves feel worse trying to make ourselves believe them and not succeeding.
So related to whether or not we can believe a modified thought is that the new thought needs to be at least as accurate as our original thought. Because we’re not going to be able to trick ourselves into believing something we don’t actually think is true. And in most cases the new thought will need to be more accurate than our original thought in order for us to change our minds and adopt the new way of thinking.
So what about something like, it’s not that big a deal and everything’s going to be fine in the end. A thought like that is certainly less negative and would reduce our anxiety. And it’s probably more accurate than our original thought. Things usually aren’t as bad as we’re worrying they’ll be and we usually do cope better than we think we will.
But even if this new thought is a little more accurate, that doesn’t mean we’ll actually believe it. It might still require too big a leap of faith especially if we’re already feeling anxious. And so we might settle on something in between that and the original thought like, it’s going to be difficult but I’ll get through it. Which is less negative than our original thought, and probably more accurate. And now maybe something we can actually believe. And as a result of this new way of thinking we decrease our level of anxiety, even though we’re probably still feeling somewhat anxious.
Or another example. Let’s say we’re having a bad day and start thinking something like, I’m such an idiot. I can’t do anything right. Nothing ever goes my way. And then we start feeling sad or depressed. So what if we change this thought to, I’m actually pretty smart, and I’m good at a lot of things, and things generally do work out for me.
That’s certainly a lot less negative and it’s going to help us feel less sad or depressed. And how accurate is it? It’s probably more accurate than the original thought. And can we actually believe it? Well if we’re feeling really down probably not. Or maybe it makes sense and we believe it on an intellectual level. But deep down it doesn’t really resonate with. Us especially when we’re feeling this way. And we might be able to think it for a while, but in the end our original thought will come back again and drown this one out.
So instead maybe we think, i’ve been messing up a lot lately and things haven’t been going my way. And that’s certainly not a positive thought. But it is less negative than our original thought. And it’s also more accurate. And so maybe we can believe something like this.
And even though it’s not a particularly happy thought that’s going to make us stop feeling sad or depressed, it’ll probably improve our moods a bit, or make our feelings and emotions a little less strong or intense, or maybe it just helps prevent us from feeling even worse. And either way any of these is a step in the right direction
So there is no one right way to think in any situation. There are a range of thoughts we can have. And the more we’re able to find thoughts that are on the less negative end of the spectrum, that we can believe, the less sad or depressed or anxious or stressed or angry we’ll feel.
And unfortunately there isn’t a manual we can refer to that tells us, if I’m feeling anxious because I’m thinking x, I just need to start thinking y and then I’ll start feeling less anxious. Because what I can believe about me and my situation, will be different than what you can believe about yourself and your situation, which will be different than what someone else can believe about themselves and their situation.
And so changing our negative thoughts can be challenging, because in the end we need to come up with our new less negative thoughts for ourselves, because that’s the only way to ensure that we can believe them. Someone else’s thoughts or suggestions won’t necessarily resonate with us.
And it can often be hard to see things in a less negative light. But there are some techniques that can help us come up with less negative ways of thinking, and to make these new thoughts more accurate and more believable than our original negative thoughts. This process is called cognitive restructuring or cognitive reappraisal, and I have a number of videos that describe how we can do this as well as some worksheets to help guide you through the process.
The first step towards reducing both the frequency of our automatic negative thoughts, and how detrimental they are, is to learn to recognize and record these automatic negative thoughts when they arise. This is part of what we do in the CBT Interrelationships worksheet from the first post in this course. In addition to completing this worksheet, it’s good practice when learning CBT to just pay attention for and write down automatic negative thoughts whenever they come up.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.