How CBT challenges our thoughts, beliefs and assumptions
Our personal belief systems drive a majority of our actions. It is the foundation of our morality and plays a role in our ability to form and maintain relationships. Our beliefs influence our goals, thoughts and behaviours and are also the base for most of our assumptions. For example, if a person believes they are confident this will influence their behaviour on a daily basis. They will confidently take on new projects at work and generally take opportunities that allow them to apply their confidence.
How do we form our beliefs?
Discussing how our beliefs are formed, the renowned American science writer, Dr Shermer states;
“We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow.”
Generally, our beliefs are formed in two ways:
1) By our experiences and reflections
2) By accepting them from experts and authority figures
Our actions are usually consistent with our beliefs, thoughts and assumptions. For people who suffer from mental health issues, it is particularly important to evaluate the connection between our belief systems, thoughts and behaviours.
How does CBT help?
This is where cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help. CBT is a talking therapy that equips clients with the tools to cope with emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, stress and much more.
When you decide to have CBT, your therapist will work with you to explore your existing thoughts, beliefs and assumptions. This will help them identify potential unhelpful ways of thinking that could be contributing to your mental health issue.
For example, a shy and socially anxious professional may think to themselves, “If I go to team drinks, my co-workers will laugh at me, I’ll be humiliated, and I will never be able to show my face in the office again.” This person is effectively thinking with their emotions. Their anxiety about social interactions leads them to emotional reasoning, believing that people will laugh at them. This then leads them to catastrophise and jump to the conclusion that they will be left humiliated. This unhelpful thinking with no basis on evidence then leads them to assume that there will be no positive outcomes from going for a drink with co-workers. In this situation, CBT will help the client identify that this type of reasoning is a mistaken assumption, not based on evidence but on a feeling.
One key practice in CBT is to examine and explore our beliefs and assumptions and then put them to the test. People often hold beliefs that are not supported by evidence. They then allow this belief system to dictate their thoughts and how they conduct their day to day lives.
CBT works well in these instances as it encourages you to challenge your unhelpful and inaccurate thoughts which will help you feel better. In addition, during your CBT sessions, your therapist will help you conduct a range of behavioural experiments that are specifically aimed to put your beliefs and thoughts to the test. These could include:
CBT therapists will use discovery experiments as a way to help you understand more about a particular situation. In the case of our previous example of the socially anxious professional, discovery testing could be used to explore their belief that their co-workers would laugh at them at team drinks. The professional could be encouraged by their therapist to put this notion to the test by attending team drinks and committing to staying for one hour. They will then be prompted to observe the results, how did their co-workers react to their presence, did anyone laugh at them? Finally, the therapist will work with the patient to reflect on what these results mean and evaluate if their original belief, thoughts or assumptions were valid in that particular situation.
Hypothesis testing experiments
We often have a good idea on a particular outcome of a situation if we happen to behave in a certain way. Your CBT therapist will help you test this belief by using hypothesis testing.
Again, let’s use the same example of our socially anxious professional, but this time, let’s say they were concerned about delivering a presentation at work. Their thoughts and beliefs have led them to believe that their co-workers will know that they are nervous, they will then think they are a terrible presenter and are incompetent at their job.
In this situation, the therapist will encourage the professional to video record themselves doing a presentation to colleagues and then ask a neutral group to rate the video recording. This could be done via the therapist. The therapist and the patient would then review the recording and be able to see for themselves how they came across in that situation.
Overall, CBT can help you identify the times you have unhelpful thoughts and engage in negative self-talk. As the treatment of choice for anxiety, depression and a range of other emotional and psychological disorders, CBT helps you to understand that it is how you approach these unhelpful thoughts that are the key to introducing better coping mechanisms into your life.