Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 101: The Voice In Your Head

In cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the first steps is learning to recognize that voice in your head. Your automatic thoughts, what you tell yourself in any given situation, your long-held beliefs—these things play a central role in the way you feel, and as such are a big part of feeling better.
Let’s do a little exercise. Just for a second, think about the word “exercise.” What comes to mind? Write it down. Describe any thoughts, images, memories, or other mental chatter that comes up when you think about the word “exercise.”
Did you do it? Or did your mind say “Yeah, okay, but I’m not really going to write it down”?
Was it statements? Sometimes our thoughts come in the form of sentences such as “I hate exercise.” Or perhaps your mind said, “I really should go running later today.” Or maybe “What’s the point? I never lose any weight.”
Did you see images? Sometimes our mind conjures up images such as memories of the last time you exercised, how you were so sweaty and you remember thinking how gross you felt. Or your mind may call up the serene view from the treadmill as you look out the window, over the pool and the lake, and remind you of how strong and relaxed you felt the last time you went running.
These thoughts make up the “cognitive” aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy. As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I pay a lot of attention to these thoughts because they have such a large impact on three major things: your behavior, your physical sensations, and your emotions.
Most of my clients come to therapy because they want to feel better—essentially they want to change their emotions. They want to feel happy instead of sad, relaxed instead of anxious, confident instead of unworthy. In cognitive behavioral therapy, in order to achieve this, we focus on the pieces that we’re able to change: your thoughts and your behaviors, which often create changes in the other areas (such as your emotions and your physical sensations) where we have less control.
As quick and fleeting as they may be, your thoughts play an important role in creating your emotions. For example, your mind’s reaction to the word “exercise” greatly effected the emotions you experienced a moment ago.
“I hate exercise.” Uninterested or unmotivated
“I should really go running later today.” Motivated, guilty, or anticipation
“What’s the point? I never lose any weight.” Hopeless, frustrated, self-critical
An image of the last time you exercised, how sweaty and gross you felt. Repulsed or uninterested
An image of the view from the treadmill looking over the lake and how strong and relaxed you felt. Strong and relaxed, excited, or content
If you’ve noticed that you’ve been feeling more depressed, anxious, or upset lately, you may want to spend some time just observing the general tone of your thoughts. Are your thoughts asking anxiety-provoking “what if” questions or imagining the worst possible outcomes? Is your mind automatically interpreting most situations as negative, hopeless, or pointless? These types of thinking habits are the hallmarks for anxiety and depression and are specifically targeted in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Luckily, CBT can teach you to recognize the role of these thoughts in how you’ve been feeling AND teach you to start challenging these thoughts when they come up for you. By learning to challenge your negative automatic thoughts, you can learn to develop more realistic, balanced perspectives so that you can start to feel more positive, less anxious, and more confident. For more information on cognitive behavioral therapy or to set up an appointment to get started working on changing your thinking habits, give us a call at 407-603-6132.

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