Are you confused about the many different types of therapy out there? If so, you are not alone. CBT - cognitive behavioural therapy - is probably one of the most well-known, but what does it mean and how can it help you?

When a client first comes to see me I ask what they know about CBT and the answer is invariably ‘very little’. This isn’t a problem as my job is to explain how it works and take you through the process in order to make desired changes and help you feel better. However, I wonder how many more people in need of help might try CBT and potentially transform their lives if they knew a little more about it.

CBT is a relatively new - and widely respected - form of therapy based on the simple premise that the way we think affects how we feel. It begins with developing a clear understanding of how your habitual ways of thinking about yourself and your world may be leading to emotional disturbance. From here we identify healthier, alternative thought patterns and, through various strategic CBT processes, help you to start thinking (and behaving) in a much more emotionally healthy way.

So how do you know whether CBT is an appropriate therapy for you? Let’s make an assumption that you are reading this article because you are not feeling right, you sense that your life has become a struggle and that you are not your normal self. Perhaps this has been a gradual feeling that has been developing over a long period of time, or maybe it has been triggered by recent events. You may be aware that you are suffering from some form of anxiety or depression, or you may have anger issues. You might be in a difficult relationship, or you feel alone, your confidence is low.

Emotional problems come in many different forms, and the key to knowing if CBT can help is that you feel blocked. You can’t snap out of it or ‘pull yourself together’. No matter how much you talk about it or bottle it up and try to ignore it, it’s constantly there and it seems to be getting worse. The encouraging news is that no matter how bad you feel, you can change. CBT aims to help you regain equilibrium and make adjustments to get things back into a more helpful and positive perspective.

So if you are looking for a therapy that follows a logical and strategic process to help you move forward and change the emotions that are holding you back, then CBT is a good option to explore. Unlike traditional psychoanalytic therapy, which focuses more on the past, CBT addresses what is happening now. It takes past events and influences into account to help understand why you are experiencing emotional problems, but focuses on creating solutions and strategies to bring about long-term change. In fact the philosophy learned can be applied throughout your life to any situations. In effect, you can become your own therapist.

Hence CBT is a therapy for modern times, encouraging you to take responsibility for your feelings, empowering you with emotional awareness, and providing subtle, yet effective ways to cope with life’s challenges.

We were not born with our thoughts and feelings, they develop as we grow up, influenced by our parents, teachers, friends, and the experiences in our lives that may have affected us. This helps us to understand the fact that we can change our thoughts. And if our thoughts trigger how we feel, we need to look at what sort of thinking leads to unhelpful emotions so that we can make the change.

In the second part of this series I will explain how CBT works in more detail. Meanwhile, a useful question for you to consider is how often you use what we call ‘black and white’ thinking in your life? ‘I must succeed, if not I’m a failure’, ‘That person didn’t smile at me, therefore doesn’t like me’. This inflexible, all or nothing tendency creates pressure and is one example of a ‘thought distortion’ that we might target in order to create an alternative, more balanced and healthy approach to life.

Quick checklist

CBT can help if:

  • You feel blocked and stuck
  • You want to learn to take control of your emotions
  • You like the idea of a logical, scientifically-proven therapy that helps you change how you feel now and in the future
  • You’re happy to practise strategies in-between sessions
  • You believe change is possible even if it feels impossible at the moment