The Art of Feeling Good
A do-it-yourself guide to cognitive behavioural therapy
‘He/She friendzoned me, I’m gonna A0 grad… I’m gonna be forever alone...’
‘I’m eating alone in the canteen and people are looking at me weird, they must think I’m a loser…’
Have you ever had these thoughts cross your mind? Do you find yourself dwelling on the negative especially during difficult times? Do people’s criticisms or insults get stuck in your head sometimes for hours or even weeks? Worse yet, do you ever find yourself being so negative for long periods of time?
This is in fact due to our brain’s “negative bias”. Our capacity to put emphasis on the negative rather than the positive has probably been an evolutionary phenomenon. From the earliest of times, actively anticipating potential dangers and avoiding them have been critical skills for survival. But these types of survival instincts are no longer suitable for the kind of living and society we are in today. Instead, because of such instincts, we get episodes of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and insufficient self-love.
Depression has been viewed as an emotional disease throughout the development of psychiatry itself. It is so widespread that it is named ‘the cold’ within the psychiatry ward. It is also estimated that by 2020, depression will be the most important health condition after heart disease in the world.
However, ‘depression is not an emotional disease.’ said Dr. David Burns, an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. His bestselling book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, is most often recommended by mental health professionals to patients suffering from anxiety and depression. Dr. Burns touched upon a profound idea in depression, which is that the feeling of worthlessness, hopelessness and helplessness stems from our inner voice which influences our emotions and perception of our surroundings. This concept is aptly worded by Cobb from the movie ‘Inception’ when he says ‘An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.’ Therefore, I have come to agree that it is our illogical pessimistic thoughts that play an important role in the constant arousal of depressed moods. Now you may be thinking: “how does knowing that help me?”. It changes everything.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapy that is often used to help people think in a healthy way. CBT, founded by Dr. Aaron Beck in 1970, is based on the principles of learning theory, and is a form of consequence appraisal therapy where one takes an active awareness of the consequence of one’s behavior and try to change them gradually. Many people work with a therapist to learn CBT in the form of a dialogue but you can also practice healthy thinking on your own.
The first step to pulling yourself out of the spiral of negativity or rewiring it to think in a more positive way is to identify your negative thoughts; the different filters your brain puts on whenever you encounter something bad. Now, no one’s telling you to identify your negative emotions because the emotions you feel are indeed very real to you but your thoughts, which created the emotions in the first place, may in fact be distorted . So, every time you get the feeling of depression due to something or even someone, try to identify the corresponding negative thoughts you have. Then, classify the different mental filters you give yourself. Read the table a few times, so that you can eventually identify which type of cognitive distortion you get every time a negative thought pops up. A more concrete way of doing this would be to make a table out of it. Divide a table into three columns. When you encounter something negative, write down that negative thought in the first column. Then, identify the cognitive distortion in the middle column. Lastly, rebut your thoughts with a logical one.
For instance, you worked really hard on an assignment but you did not score the highest mark. You feel extremely frustrated (negative emotion). You probably think ‘this is stupid, I’ll never get it right!!!!’ (negative thought). Write this down in column 1. Now, look at the table, you’ll find that your mind has put up a few mental filters: All-or-nothing thinking and Overgeneralization. In that moment, you think that because of this mishap, you will never be able to perform well (Overgeneralization), and you’ve deemed yourself a failure (All-or-nothing thinking). Write this down in column 2. Finally, rebut with logic. It is preposterous to think that you’ll never get it right, which is an exaggeration, because there are some other things you have done right. So why punish yourself for this little mistake you made? Instead of deeming yourself a failure and that you will never succeed, you should instead look for ways of improvement like asking the professor for comments and advice on how to do better. Now, write this down in column 3. These might sound futile to you but remember your brain actually believed it in the first place, that because of one assignment, you really are stupid.
As Dr. Burns suggested, do not just do this in your head. You would just end up losing the argument with yourself and get even more depressed. Writing your thoughts down makes it easier for you to see what is wrong with your thoughts in the first place. I tried this for two weeks and though I was skeptical at first, I could not believe how distorted my thoughts were and just how much my mind believed those thoughts. Now I understand why people say that your inner voice is a double-edged sword, it could really make you or break you. So wield it for, not against yourself.
Definitions of Cognitive Distortions:
Definitions of Cognitive Distortions
Source: ‘Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy’ by Dr. David D. Burns, M.D.