When most people think of therapy, they picture a crying person lying on a couch pouring their heart out while a doctor nods quietly, takes notes, and asks cryptic questions every so often.
While this is certainly true in movies and on television, most modern forms of therapy are more positive and goal-based. Cognitive behavioural therapy has gained steam since its inception in the 1960s when it was introduced by psychiatrist Aaron Beck.
Beck noticed that his patients seemed to internalise thoughts that in turn caused feelings that may or may not have been appropriate for the situation. These automatic thoughts happen involuntarily and instantaneously when faced with a situation. For example, imagine you are having lunch with a close friend. During conversation, your friend seems short and slightly irritated.
Your automatic thought would probably be that your friend is angry with you. This, in turn, causes you to worry and wonder what you did to upset her. What you don’t know, however, is that before leaving her home for your lunch date, she had an argument with her husband. The residual negative feelings left her feeling agitated and inadvertently passing the negative feelings to you.
On the other hand, automatic thoughts can be helpful in our everyday lives. If you are driving and another car comes flying up the road behind you, your automatic thought may be “They are going to run into me!”.
You immediately switch lanes to avoid a collision. You have no way of knowing if the other driver was going to slow down, but your automatic thinking potentially saved your life.
Automatic thoughts are just that – automatic. We have no control over our automatic thoughts, but we DO have control over the feelings they produce. If negative automatic thoughts are adversely affecting your life, you may be a good candidate for cognitive behavioural therapy.
CBT focuses on recognising automatic thoughts and looking at them from another point of view. For instance, in the lunch example above, your automatic thought remains the same (“My friend must be upset with me”) but by taking a moment to consider other possibilities (“Maybe she’s tired”, “Something else could be upsetting her”), you can change your feelings toward the situation. In other words, we can’t change our automatic thoughts, but we can change our reactions to those thoughts.
Patients with specific goals in mind and a willingness to change are better suited to cognitive behavioural therapy than patients with major chronic disorders and no set objectives. Patients and doctors work closely together to set goals and determine milestones, and therapy generally progresses relatively quickly.
Keep in mind that CBT is meant to be short-term and may not be right for everyone. To find a doctor who practices cognitive behavioural therapy in London, talk to your primary care doctor or current mental health professional.