How to Make CBT Work For You

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If you’ve tried CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) you know it isn’t easy.  If you haven’t, well you might want to.  CBT helps with stopping the negative thinking that feeds negative emotions.

Based on my struggles with CBT, here is my best advice on how to make CBT work for you.

Consider learning mindfulness first.

I struggled with the whole “just see your negative thoughts floating by like they’re clouds or waves”.  I was emotionally invested in these thoughts and couldn’t just watch them go by.  Me and my thoughts were all one thing.

3987221695_00c8552a96Photo Credit: Eduardo Amorim via Compfight cc

Mindfulness will help you develop the skill of stepping outside your thoughts so you can begin to see the habits of your mind.  It’s then CBT that will help you change those habits.

Mindfulness is often combined with CBT into Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or MBSR– Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.  I took a MBSR course – good stuff!!

Reframing your negative self-talk doesn’t mean lying to yourself or being less realistic.

I was often irritated that therapists wanted me to invent a less plausible explanation for something.  I could come up with other explanations, I just couldn’t believe them.

Here are a few things I’d say to myself to get past this because you do have to let go of those seemingly plausible explanations that are dragging you down.

  • Just because that’s what you’re thinking and feeling doesn’t make it true.
  • You might be right but choose a less extreme explanation so you don’t get so depressed.
  • What’s the point in being right if it makes you depressed?  Just pick some other explanation, even if you don’t fully believe it, and move on.
  • Depression distorts your thoughts – don’t trust what they’re telling you.
  • If you’re going to stay with this depressing explanation, what did you learn and what are you going to change?

Don’t wait to feel motivated to practice challenging your negative thinking.

Sometimes motivation comes after you’ve taken the first step.  You can feel motivated by a sense of accomplishment that you made time to practice.

What do you know about motivating yourself when the results aren’t noticeable quickly?  You need to apply that knowledge here because depression doesn’t go away quickly.

Set small manageable goals.  The success will keep you motivated.  If your goal is “I’m going to try stop my negative self-talk”, you will fail and give up.  Some examples of manageable goals are:

  • I will fill out a mood journal at the end of each day. (A mood journal helps you figure out your triggers, self care necessities and thought patterns.)
  • I’m going to watch for my all-or-nothing thought distortion this week and try get faster at noticing it.
  • I’m going to journal each day to get better at distinguishing facts from my negative interpretations.

Manage your expectations.

CBT alone is likely not going to cure a severe depression.  CBT will also not eliminate all negative self-talk.  Some negative thinking is normal – you need to find a healthy balance.

If you’ve ever learned a sport, musical instrument, language or complex skill – what was that process like?  How long did it take before the skill was so automatic you didn’t have to think about the steps you were going through?  Learning to manage your thought processes is just as hard.  Don’t beat yourself up when it falls apart.

If a reframing technique isn’t working for you, pick another.

There are a lot of techniques to reframe negative thinking so that it doesn’t depress you.  Here’s a list of 50 from David Burns, author of what’s likely the most popular depression self-help books ever – The Feeling Good Handbook and Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapy.

What are your CBT struggles and tips?


Me July 2013

About the Author
Michele Longo
I promote peer support and encourage people on their recovery journeys. My plan with this blog is to build a community of like-minded individuals offering ideas and encouragement from their own experiences. My master plan is to help create psychologically safe and supportive workplaces. I live in Calgary, Canada.

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3 thoughts on “How to Make CBT Work For You

  1. Tracy
    April 29, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    I really struggled with coming up with alternate reasons that were believable, I’d fill out countless thought records every day but not be able to balance a thought without the help of my psychologist. I was in a very bad place when I took my CBT course and I wish I had been able to wait or take it again. What helped me more than anything was journalling. More often than not, I was able to come to some sort of realization just writing through an event, without even consciously thinking about an alternate scenario. I don’t journal regularly anymore, haven’t for a while, but when I’m feeling like I’m slipping again, I’ll go back a year or two and see how far I’ve come. I had a therapist that always used to say to me “you are so focused on how bad things are, you forget how really bad things were” and through journalling I can see exactly what he meant.

    Your posts always speak to my experiences and I wish I had the presence of mind to reply to each of them, sometimes I just lack the belief that anything I say matters. Thank you for being so open and honest, I’m sure a lot more people than just me appreciate it. And know that even if I don’t post a comment, I’m still sitting here reading them and nodding in agreement.

  2. Michele
    May 4, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    Hi Tracy,
    Sorry I’m so slow on the reply – I was away on a mental health peer support conference – first of its kind in Canada. Great to hear from you! I know what you mean about not being able to come up with believable alternate reasons. Hindsight is great though to see that you have to be ready to do that kind of work and have the right therapist. I feel so appreciated after reading your comment. I still wonder if anything I say matters too but I seem to just keep writing and every so often someone says something encouraging and so I just keep on. Thanks for taking the time to write me!!!!! Michele

  3. April 29, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Nice article, Michele.
    I started an MBSR course recently but interested in MBCT and other techniques. Managing negative thoughts and staying non-judgemental is really hard for me, but I keep on practicing :)
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