I first wanted to explore more Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) after reading about the hundreds of research papers that backed it up as the most scientifically proven set of techniques to improve your mood. Four years ago, I experienced some depression and anxiety and did not know how to deal with them effectively. I picked up a copy of “Feeling Good” by David Burns and forced myself to read it from cover to cover. A lot of it rang true, and a lot of it felt boring (or it felt uncomfortable and so I didn’t want to do it). About a month later (I took my time, and it is ~700 pages), I thought it well worth it.
As a side-note, Dr. David D. Burns is not some kind of guru but a psychiatrist who studied, practices, and clearly explains the techniques of CBT developed by a whole community of mental health practitioners. They also happen to be very strongly supported by scientific evidence, which is what I am after.
Before reading the book, I ranked at the top of Dr. Burns’ depression inventory. Generally, I always seek to be at the top, but this specific group is not one I want to place in (and stay in). About 6-12 months later, I had more than halved my depression. That was back around 2019. I felt a lot more freedom to express myself, happier and more confident. Today, I rank on the low end of this depression inventory. This is not to say that I feel awesome all the time. I am pretty sure no one does and that’s fine. I come back to the book a lot, or I Google the cognitive distortions to remember what they are as I use daily some of the techniques Dr. Burns lays out in his book.
Ok, that sounds great, but how exactly do you halve your negative moods? There are no drugs involved? Nope, just a pencil, paper and your brain. The following are a small subset of the techniques I use daily or weekly. While rapidly reviewing the book to write this blog, I realized how little I used and how another read these days would do me good. Also, before presenting the techniques, let’s expose the foundational paradigm of CBT: the cognitive distortions!
The Cognitive Distortions That Screw Up Your Life
Many of them overlap somewhat but capture ways in which your thoughts can make you unhappy. I have structured them as a definition, followed by an example, followed by a more rational version of the example.
All-or-nothing Thinking: You see the world in black and white. This is typical of perfectionists who will only be happy with their best and nothing less.
“I will either be first on the podium or I will be nothing.”
Overgeneralization: Your statements encompass much more than what would rationally make sense.
“Everyone despises me”
Mental Filter: You see everything through a specific lens. For example, you think that everyone is out to get you or that you will never be good enough. It’s the drop of ink that tarnishes the whole bowl of water.
“No one will ever like what I have to talk about”.
Disqualifying the Positive: Whether you do well or something good happens to you, you shoot it down. A subcategory is the binocular trick where you see only the negatives in yourself but you see only the positive in others, leading you to believe that you are awful compared to everyone else.
“I may have won first place, but I did not beat my personal record”.
Jumping to conclusions: You engage in mind reading and predict what people will do in response to your actions (the fortune teller error).
“They’ll think I’m an idiot and they won’t invite me for the audition”.
Magnification, Minimization and Catastrophisation: You blow situations out of proportion (good or bad), minimize your mess-ups and/or imagine what awful things will happen now.
“I forgot to say goodbye to my client, they’ll never come back to the store again”
Emotional Reasoning: You derive what you must be thinking from your emotions. This one is tricky in that it's not about ignoring emotions, but about assigning faulty cognitive conclusions to emotional states you experience.
“I feel awful, therefore I must be a bad person”.
Should Statements: You try to argue with the world about how it should be. You’ll always lose with that one.
“They should have asked me what I thought about the project”.
Labelling/Mislabeling: You attribute one-dimensional words (often insults) to others or yourself. There's no such thing as a loser, it's just a broad category meant to put someone in a box.
“I’m such a loser”
Personalization: You blame yourself for something that was ultimately out of your control. You'll like that one if you love taking things personally.
“I didn’t land the role because I am such a lousy actor”.
CBT Techniques I Use
This is the most basic CBT technique. Below is an example based on the above examples. You create three columns: in the first, you write your thought, in the second, the distortions you identify, and in the third, a rational response. No need to recognize all the distortions that appear in a thought, just try to get as many that apply as possible. When writing down the rational response, get out of the story and put on your adult pants. It must sound as true and realistic as possible to you and must not include any cognitive distortions. This is an exercise in restructuring a distorted thought.
Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts
This extended version of the triple-column techniques helps you track cognitive distortions that afflict you throughout the day. Just write the thoughts down as they come throughout the day and go through them using the triple technique in the evening if you have no time before.
Conclusion: Applying the Techniques
If you read “Feeling Good”, your mood will very likely improve by the fact that it is bibliotherapy. You will feel more joy and less negative moods. However, long-term change always requires active practice. CBT is no different. A couple of months ago, I decided to do the triple-column technique for 15 minutes minimum per day for 2 months. This helped me tremendously integrate the reading into actual life improvements. Learn to be alert to and recognize the main cognitive distortions, and you will lead a happier life.
This was a tiny excerpt of the methods of CBT. If you want to learn more, the local thrift stores seem to all carry a copy of the "Feeling Good" in my area, so go on, buy it and read it.