7 Magical Steps In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Feelings

Cognitive behavioral therapy can seem like magic -- it’s also very scientific!

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, offered in Columbia, Mo., can actually change how your brain works.

Many people have heard of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. It’s sometimes used by counselors in Columbia, Mo. and elsewhere for depression, anxiety, and trauma, but it can be helpful for almost anyone. When it works, it can seem a lot like magic! It agree it is magic-like, and it’s also scientific. I find it amazing myself that something like changing our thoughts can help us with physical symptoms like feeling tired, queasy, or shaking in fear!

CBT therapy techniques, especially when practiced over time, actually rewire the brain to think differently. This can change your mood in the short-term as well as long haul.

Below is a modified version of one exercise commonly used by those practicing this technique. I also use this thought-changing strategy often when helping people process past trauma. For that, we use a targeted version of cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses in on the difficult thoughts relating to the trauma.

Even if you don’t need or want counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy treatment, you can use this same process just to deal with everyday stresses. Many people think of our negative thoughts as our “inner critics” or “inner bully.” These thoughts are a part of ourselves, even coming from a specific location in the brain, and they are typically trying to protect us in some way. However, they often miss the mark, instead making us feel worse rather than better. So, we can reprogram them to work differently!

If you know the thought isn’t really rational, but you are having trouble changing it, these steps from cognitive behavioral therapy can help. Complete this 7-step process for a few of the strongest negative messages that come up on a regular basis. You can also try some of the follow-up techniques to reframe your thoughts in general.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Questions

1. Identify a common negative message you often say to yourself. (Example: I’m a failure.) Write it down on a sheet of paper. Notice if this comes from a particular struggle, stressor, or situation. (Example: When I try something new and it’s not going well, I think this.)

2. Ask yourself if there's a purpose for this thought or message continuing. Is it trying to help or protect you in some way? How? (Example: It keeps me from being vulnerable and taking too many risks.) Honor that you've had this thought in the past for a reason.

3. What is evidence against your thought? (Example: Actually, I have a couple of hobbies that I’m really good at. Or, actually, I remember that one project that I did really well with. I always forget about the good ones.) If there's also evidence for your thought, can you question it? Is that the whole story? Is it based in habit, or fact? (For example, maybe you're only remembering your failures and not all the times you've done well.)

4. What would my wise self or spiritual say about this? (Example: I'm a capable, smart person who does my best.)

5. Can I give this internal protector/critic a new job? (Example: You can protect me by motivating me to do my best, but let’s not discourage me with this mean thought.)

6. What's a more helpful thought I can tell myself and believe right now? (Example: I always do my best, and although I sometimes fail, I also have great successes. Or, everyone fails at times, and that means I’m trying harder than a lot of people.)

7. Once you have a more helpful thought that you can believe, write it down somewhere, or store it on your phone, and remind yourself of it often. Make it a habit to notice the old thought and correct yourself with the new thought as much as you can. Over time, you will gradually get better at the new thought, and if you are committed and keep it up, you will actually start to go straight to the positive thought and skip the old one entirely!

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Triangle

For a simpler everyday version of the 7 questions, you can use the cognitive behavioral triangle. It has three points, as you might imagine, containing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. As you change your thoughts, your feelings and behaviors will change with them. This simple version is best used with smaller, everyday annoyances.

Before practicing with the triangle, it’s helpful to notice the difference between natural and manufactured emotions. This is a strategy taught in cognitive processing therapy , a type of cognitive behavioral therapy. The developers of CPT describe natural emotions as those that come up naturally, that most people would experience. You could also label this as a “normal” or typical emotion. Human beings are programmed to have feelings, just as many animals have. (Notice how your dog reacts sometimes when you leave the house, or when you get home?) Natural feelings should be allowed to happen, well … naturally. Don’t try to change or stop them. They’re not good or bad, they’re just a natural body response that gives us good information.

Manufactured emotions are a little different. These emotions aren’t a natural response, but rather created by the story we tell ourselves about what’s going on. This might include thoughts along the lines of, “I can’t believe the boss is treating me this way. Every time I try to help someone criticizes me. I can never do anything right.” This is a story we tell to protect ourselves, but the result is that it makes us feel worse, and keeps us unhappy a lot longer.

So, the lesson is to allow our natural feelings to come up, and to accept, notice and process them if needed. However, when we notice ourselves telling the “story” that’s making things worse, we can change that.

An easy way to do that is with the cognitive behavioral therapy triangle. Here’s how that works.

Typical thought example

Everyday Event: Someone cuts you off in traffic

Natural Emotion: Annoyance, fear

Typical Thought/Story: What a jerk! I hate it when people do that! Or, I’m so bad at driving. I’m horrible in this traffic!

Resulting Feelings: Ongoing anger, resentment, guilt

Resulting Behavior: Complain to others once you get to work

This is a typical cycle of negative thinking. Now consider an alternative way.

New, more helpful thought example:

Same Everyday Event: Someone cuts you off in traffic

Natural Emotion: Annoyance, fear

New Thought: It’s normal to be annoyed by that. But at least I’m okay. I just avoided an accident! I’ve done that before myself. I guess we all do at times. Maybe they didn’t see me, or they panicked. New Feelings: Relief, calm, gratitude (You’ll probably forget the incident fairly quickly.)

New Behavior: Happily greet people when you get to work

Try your own sample here, filling out your usual responses, then fill in your new possibilities.

Everyday Event: Natural Emotion:

Usual Thought/Story:

Resulting Ongoing Feeling:

Resulting Behaviors:

Now, practice, reframing it!

Same Everyday Event:

Natural Emotion: New thought/story:

New resulting feelings:

New resulting behaviors:

Complete this for as many everyday events as you like. I recommend picking one to three at a time and focusing on each for several days or weeks. Eventually you’ll begin to reroute your brain mapping to generally think more positively about small, annoying things. Life will become a little less stressful and you’ll notice more positive things. In cognitive behavioral therapy, you can get help to use this strategy for more damaging, shaming thoughts.

An alternative, but harder version of the above, is to have less attachment to our thoughts and “stories” in general. This is a bit harder, and takes more practice. Many people work on this in a regular meditation practice.This version might look like this with the traffic incident:

Same Everyday Event: Someone cuts you off in traffic

Natural Emotion: Annoyance, fear

New Thought: Interesting. I notice myself getting annoyed by this traffic. New awareness: I can feel this tension in my body. My hands are clenching the steering wheel. I’m just going to be aware of this for a minute or two. (Simply noticing our bodies and feelings can take the edge off them.)

New thought: I notice myself having these thoughts and feelings. I don’t have to believe the thought is true. In other words, “I don't have to attach to this thought,” or "I am not my thought." Resulting behavior: Going about the day as normal, or continuing this exercise.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which also stems from cognitive behavioral therapy () uses a meditation called Leaves on a Stream, that helps practice this principle of not attaching to our thoughts. Check it out here.

Can cognitive behavioral therapy in Columbia, Mo., help you?

If you’d like to learn more about changing your thoughts to change your feelings, or to deal with anxiety or trauma, I’d love to hear from you. I am a trauma and anxiety counselor in Columbia, Mo., and I use a few different types of cognitive behavioral therapy.

What thought do you have that challenges you the most? Have you ever tried to change your thoughts, or have you found other methods work better? E-mail, call, message or text me and tell me about it! I look forward to hearing from you. My number is 573/291-7315, or e-mail jennie@thecounselingpalette.com

The Counseling Palette offers trauma, anxiety and PTSD therapy.

The Counseling Palette 

Call or Text: 573/291-7315

E-mail: jennie@thecounselingpalette.com                             

Location: 2100 East Broadway, Suite 100, Columbia, Mo., 65201 (the Stephens Lake Office Building, Next to Clover's, on the bottom floor)

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