Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, also known by the initials CBT, is a type of talking therapy that was developed in the 1960s to treat depression. Dr. Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist who developed the treatment, realized that when his patients were feeling depressed they tended to think about themselves, the world and their future much more negatively than when they didn’t feel depressed.
For example, when a patient wasn’t showing symptoms he might have said of himself “I’m okay. My life is alright, and I’m probably going to be just fine in life.” But when that same person felt depressed, he was much more likely to say things like “I’m no good. My life stinks and my future is probably going to stink too.” People’s thoughts were distinctly different when the depression symptoms were present.
Dr. Beck figured it might be the thoughts themselves that were causing the symptoms of low mood and began to explore whether a person’s mood improved when their negative thinking became more positive.
Dr. Beck realized that depressive thoughts took pretty consistent forms, regardless of the personal qualities or life histories of the depressed patients themselves. He called these styles of depressing thinking ‘cognitive distortions’, meaning that they were like a lens that distorted the image of something neutral or positive and made it look only negative. Over several years, he and others identified a number of different cognitive distortions that were present when people felt depressed. These included:
All or Nothing Thinking: Where a depressed person might think “If I’m not perfect, then it means I’m no good at all,” or “Nothing ever works out for me” when only one thing has gone wrong.
Mental Filter: The tendency to look for and see negative events more than positive events. For example, a person who invites friends for dinner, cleans the house nicely, has good food and drinks ready but forgets one thing might dwell only on that one thing and ignore all the others.
Mind-Reading: Because we can never tell what people might be thinking, we tend to jump to conclusions based on their facial expressions and other behaviours. When the weight of a depressed mood settles in, people are more likely to just assume that other people are thinking as negatively as they are.
Fortune-Telling: The tendency to look ahead in time, often to the worst-case scenario and then believe it is the most likely outcome.
Labeling: When we feel good enough about ourselves and our lives, we’re more likely to be generous with ourselves, like we are with other people. For example, we might be willing to forgive our minor mistakes and chalk them up to circumstances — ‘Oh, I was just rushing.’ But when we feel down and depressed, we tend to paint ourselves with a single brush, saying things “I’m so stupid,” or “I’m such a loser” and giving ourselves no credit whatsoever.
The Cognitive Model says that what we think in a moment is directly related to what we feel in that moment. From that perspective, CBT helps people to start exploring their thoughts during the day to see whether those thoughts are valid or distorted. Doing that, a good CBT therapist will help their client to climb out of depression and avoid falling back in. Get in touch with us if you struggle with cognitive distortions and want to see how cognitive behaviour therapy can help you.