Updated: May 10
Here’s how changing your thoughts can change your life.
Many people have heard of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. It’s sometimes used by counselors to help with depression, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD, but it can be helpful for almost anyone.
Here’s a look at what CBT is, and how the steps of CBT can make a difference.
What is CBT?
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, focuses on changing unhelpful thoughts. By changing negative patterns of thinking, you can find relief from anxiety, depression, and more. The effective CBT steps can seem like magic, and they're also based in science.
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. CBT has been shown to help with the following areas, among others:
Calming anxiety, and anxiety disorders
Fighting and preventing depression
Treating past trauma and post-traumatic stress (PTSD)
Common medical disorders, like diabetes and fibromyalgia
For conditions like PTSD, therapists often use an even more targeted version of cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses in on the difficult thoughts relating to the trauma. In trauma-focused therapies, the negative thoughts that occur are often based on shame about what happened.
Even if you don’t need or want counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy treatment, you can use this same process to cope 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 the 7-step process below 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.
1. Identify a common negative message you often say to yourself.
For example, a common negative message might be, "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'm reminded that I'm such a failure.")
2. Ask yourself if there's a purpose for this thought.
For example, question:
Is it trying to help or protect you in some way?
How is it protecting me? (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. Look for evidence against your negative thought.
Here's another 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 times I do well."
Here are some other ways to consider the evidence against your belief:
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. Ask, "What would my wise, fair self say about this?"
For example, your wise self that's being fair about this idea might say, "There are a lot of examples of me doing well at things. It's not really fair to say I fail all the time."
5. Find a new job for your inner critic.
Our inner critics are the source of our negative thoughts. They're there to protect us. But often, we don't need that protection anymore. So, find something else for it to do. For example, think: "Inner critic, you can protect me by motivating me to do my best, but let’s not discourage me with this mean thought. Maybe you can work on noticing things I'm doing well."
6. Consider a more helpful thought you can believe right now.
Here's an example of a more positive thought to replace the failure thought: "I might fail sometimes, but more often than that, I succeed!" Or put more simply, "I am a success!"
7. Remind yourself of the new thought until you easily believe it.
Write your more helpful thought down somewhere, store it on your phone, or make a giant banner of the thought for your bedroom. 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 negative one entirely!
Before practicing with what's called the CBT 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 natural feelings. 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. (Or, check out this article for more details with diagrams.)
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:
Resulting Ongoing Feeling:
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.
How Can I Access CBT Resources and Therapy?
There are many self-help and professional resources that can assist you if you're wanting to change your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Here are a few ways to find help:
Reach out to a local or telehealth therapist in your state who practices CBT. Many therapists offer local sessions, or are currently providing therapy online. Look for a therapist licensed in your state. Ask about their experience and success with CBT.
Look for online programs that offer CBT-focused strategies.
Use self-help resources to practice the steps of CBT, such as the questions above.
What are Supplements to CBT?
CBT is one of the most proven therapies to help with nearly any life struggle or mental health issue. However, sometimes supplemental practices can be of help. They can assist you to calm your thoughts, and relax you enough to make use of the steps of CBT. Here are some helpful practices that can help support your CBT work.
Meditation. Mindfulness and meditation practices can be incorporated into cognitive behavioral work, and/or can be used instead of them. In many ways they are similar, helping you notice and calm your thoughts.
Yoga. Practices like yoga also allow you to slow down, and incorporate purposeful movement, which can help boost both therapy and mindfulness practices.
Tai chi. This is an ancient practice, but has plenty of modern day research to back it up. Through the intentional movements and sometimes spiritual practices of Tai chi, you can learn to focus and calm restless thoughts and feelings.
Diet, supplements, and exercise. We all know a healthy diet can help with many areas of health, including mental health. However, sometimes we have missing vitamins or nutrients that affect mood. Or, depression or anxiety may be getting in the way of being more active. If you're struggling with this area, find a doctor or other health practitioner who can help you get to the bottom of any medical or nutrient issues affecting your mental health.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of many ways to improve your overall health, mood, and satisfaction in life. It's one of the most effective therapies, partially because you can continue to use it for years after you learn it.
If you feel stuck in your thoughts, a qualified CBT therapist can help you look at where your stuck points are, and begin to break free of them.
Struggling with Trauma, Anxiety, or PTSD?
If you believe you may be struggling with an ongoing mental health issue, here are some resources that can help.
Find professional services. A good starting point is SAMHSA, which will help you connect to local therapists.
Check out my worksheets that you can start on your own or take to your therapist. I designed these activities based on scientific research (including CBT studies) and my own experiencing in helping clients heal from PTSD. Download my CBT worksheets to try it.
Jennie Lannette, LCSW, is a licensed, practicing therapist in Missouri, specializing in trauma, anxiety, and related mental health issues.