Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, emphasizes the relationships between our thoughts (the cognitive part of CBT), our actions and behaviour, and our emotions. In cognitive behavioral therapy we learn strategies and techniques to modify our thoughts and behaviour. And when we change our thoughts and behavior, we influence and change how we feel.
CBT works well for self-help because it relies on structured, practical exercises you can do on your own. These are often assigned as homework, so even when you’re working with a therapist, there is a substantial self-help component to CBT.
The ABCs of CBT: An Introduction to CBT
The tagline of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is, “If you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel.” CBT focuses a lot on the relationship between our thoughts and our feelings, but it’s more than that. In CBT we’re concerned with four main aspects of our experiences and how they interact with each other:
- Thoughts and cognitions (The “C” in CBT)
- Moods, feelings and emotions
- Actions and behavior (the “B” in CBT)
- Body sensations and physical symptoms
The video below explains the relationships between our thoughts and our feelings, and then looks at the interrelationships between all four of the above aspects of our experience.
The ABCs of CBT
This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.
Now we’re gonna spend some time exploring the relationship between thoughts and feelings
I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine the following scenario:
You’re walking down the street and you see someone you know on the other side. You smile and wave at them but they just keep walking without responding at all. Now how do you feel?
Well the way you feel in this situation will depend a lot on your thoughts. If you think, what’s the matter, why is he ignoring me, have i done something to upset him? Then you might start feeling anxious or worried.
Or if you think, why didn’t he respond, doesn’t he like me? Then you might start feeling sad. And if you think, what’s his problem? That’s so rude, what’s wrong with him! Then you might start feeling angry.
Or if you just think, oh i guess he didn’t notice me, then you may not have much of an emotional response at all.
The point is the situation itself doesn’t determine how you feel. The way that you feel depends on the thoughts that you have in response to the situation.
This relationship between our thoughts and feelings is often described as the abc model. So first at a we have a situation or trigger which we sometimes refer to as the activating event. And then at c we end up with a consequence or feeling. And we’re often not even aware of the belief or thought at b that links abc together. And this thought is referred to as an automatic thought because it arises almost instantly and automatically and if we were to have a different belief or automatic thought it’d be it would lead to a different feeling or consequence at sea
So at a we have the activating event: you’re walking down the street and someone ignores you when you try to say hi. And then at b you have a belief or thought about what just happened. And this belief leads to a consequence or a feeling at c. And if you have a different belief or automatic thought at b you’ll have a different consequence or feeling at c. And yet another belief could lead to another consequence or another feeling.
But just as our thoughts affect our feelings, the automatic thought that we have at any given time will depend on our mood and the way that we’re feeling. So if you’re already feeling anxious you’re much more likely to have an anxious automatic thought; or if you’re feeling sad a sad automatic thought. Our thoughts and our moods are usually congruent like this.
Because there is such a strong relationship between our thoughts and our feelings, it’s helpful to become aware of the thoughts that we’re having and to notice how they’re affecting our mood. Otherwise it’s so easy to get caught up in vicious cycles where we have some sort of anxious thought because we’re feeling anxious, and then this anxious thought makes us feel even more anxious, which then leads to even more anxious thoughts, which leave us feeling more anxious again.
Or we can have the same sort of cycle with sadness, which leads us into a downward spiral that leaves us feeling depressed. And once these cycles get started they’re very difficult to slow down or reverse. But if we’re able to notice our thoughts better and recognize how they’re affecting our mood we can often disrupt these cycles before they get started or have the chance to gather a lot of momentum.
And we can expand this model of the relationship between our thoughts and feelings to take in body sensations and behavior as well. We start with a trigger or situation, which can be either something external something you’re doing or something is being done to you, or it can be something internal a thought feeling or body sensation.
And then this trigger or situation generates thoughts, feelings, body sensations and actions in response. And then these thoughts, feelings, body sensations and actions generate more thoughts, feelings, body sensations and actions in relation to each other.
Let’s look at some examples. Suppose that you’re out with a group of people that you don’t know that well and you’re a little shy and feeling a bit uncomfortable and you have the thought, i wish i had something interesting to talk about.
And then when you have this thought you start feeling a little anxious. And then you do try to say something but because you’re feeling anxious you stumble over your words a bit. And then you feel embarrassed and your face turns red. And then you think ,what’s wrong with me, i don’t even know how to talk to people. And now you feel sad. And then you get this feeling in the pit of your stomach. And then you think, there’s no point in even trying anymore. And then you excuse yourself and leave.
So you can see how in this situation your thoughts, feelings and emotions, body sensations, and actions are all influencing one another. And they initiate a downward spiral that’s making the situation more and more difficult to deal with and in the end leaves you feeling depressed.
And now for a situation in which a body sensation is the initial trigger let’s look at how panic attacks get started. They often begin with an uncomfortable body sensation in your chest. And that leads to the thought, am i having a heart attack? And that thought generates anxiety. And this anxiety leads your heart to start beating faster. And then you start gasping for breath. And then you start to hyperventilate. And then you think i really am having a heart attack. And you start to panic and your heart starts beating even faster generating even more panic and before you know it all of these things have interacted together to bring on a full-blown panic attack.
Cbt and mindfulness based cognitive therapy can help you learn to reverse these cycles, calm your body sensations and emotions, and let go of your negative thoughts. To learn more about mindfulness based cognitive therapy you can check out my online course for free from the link in the description and don’t forget to click on that like button and subscribe to my channel for more videos like this.
A good way to get started with CBT is to use this pdf worksheet whenever you notice a change in your mood. On it you record your thoughts, feelings and emotions, actions and behavior, and any physical symptoms or sensations. The more you do this, the more you’ll start recognizing how your thoughts, feelings, behavior, and body sensations interact with and influence one another.
CBT Self-Help Course
The CBT videos in this free self-help course explain the material the way I do to clients, using animations that reinforce the content. While these videos aren’t a replacement for meeting with a therapist trained in CBT, they provide a lot of the information and some of the benefits that therapy offers. You’ll find all of the videos on my YouTube channel, but putting everything together on this site lets me organize the information better and provide additional context.
If you go through these videos in order, it’s like a free online CBT course. You’ll learn the fundamentals of CBT as well as many advanced CBT concepts. There are also links to all the pages in the sidebar (or at the bottom of the post if you’re on a mobile device), so you can quickly jump to wherever you left off.
In the next series of posts we’ll focus on our thoughts—the cognitive aspect of CBT. Then we’ll look at behavior, feelings and emotions, and body sensations and physical symptoms. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.
I’ll keep adding videos to this course, so please subscribe to my YouTube channel to get notified whenever I release a new video, and follow me on Twitter where I’ll post updates as I add content to this site.
CBT Self-Help Course Contents
- Thoughts are not Facts
- Automatic Negative Thoughts in CBT
- Cognitive Distortions in CBT
- Cognitive Restructuring in CBT
- CBT Thought Records
- Thought Record Tips
- Core Beliefs in CBT
- Modifying Core Beliefs
- Letting Go of Thoughts
- Cognitive Defusion
- Behavioral Experiments in CBT
- Problem Solving and Action Plans in CBT
- Opposite Action
- Behavioral Activation in CBT
- Anxiety and Exposure
- Systematic Desensitization
- Emotion Regulation
- Physical Symptoms
- Pain vs Suffering