What is Cognitive Therapy?
Cognitive therapy seeks to help the patient overcome difficulties by identifying and changing dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotional responses by learning new tools and different ways to conceptualize problems.
An Emotional Response
When a mother yells angrily at her child for running out into the street, she does so because of fear. She cares deeply about her child and normally feels love rather than anger for him, but in the moment of stress, emotions trump logic. She may even keep yelling after the child is safe because she has not put her rational brain back in control.
This seeming irrationality caused by fear is actually the result of the human brain functioning on different levels depending on the circumstances. Yelling at a child in danger is an instinctive reaction motivated by the primitive need for survival. Loving the child and genuinely caring about him or her is the result of a higher level of brain function.
The human brain actually functions on two levels: reptilian and cognitive-rational.
The reptilian level is the primitive part that aids in survival. It is activated by fear and controls the “fight or flight” response. The second and highest level is the cognitive-rational, “where the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual are born and thrive.”* While each of these levels is important and essential to our way of life, we operate at a higher level when we integrate all both.
It is normal and sometimes helpful to have a “reptilian” response to some of life’s stressors. If danger is near, as when a mother sees her child playing near traffic, we are hardwired to react and seek safety. Most of us easily return to cognitive-rational thinking after the danger has passed. The trouble comes if our brains over-assess our risk levels and we are always on high alert, resulting in high levels of agitation and anxiety.
We, like the frantic mother, have all experienced the “reptilian brain”.
Cognitive or Rational Thought
The solution is found by putting our cognitive or rational brain back in control. Cognitive Therapy uses different methods to achieve this outcome. It is also effective for treating mood regulation disorders, eating/substance abuse disorders, PTSD, OCD, and psychotic disorders.
A therapist trained in Cognitive Therapy helps clients examine the thoughts and beliefs sabotaging their brain’s ability to switch from reptilian thinking back to cognitive-rational thinking. These thoughts and beliefs include comments like “People never like me” “I am no good” and “I fail at everything I do” all of which are examples of negative self-talk. A therapist can help a client reframe these negative statements, converting them into more hopeful thoughts that allow for the possibility of improvement: “It is highly unfortunate when people don’t like me.” or “I am not good at some things, but that does not make me a bad individual.” or “I may have failed at some things, but I haven’t failed at everything.”
Change your thoughts, change your moods
A common saying heard in cognitive therapy is “Change your thoughts, change your moods.” Reframing helps us see that life is not all or nothing and that we can survive disappointment and rejection because we are in control of our thoughts, and our thoughts control our moods. As cognitive therapy teaches, “People and events do not disturb us. Our interpretations of the events disturb us.” Cognitive therapy targets thinking errors and irrational beliefs, often through exercises that invite the client to examine these individually. Assignments may include completing thought logs or journals, disputing irrational ideas, and forming goals for future growth.
Camille Curtis Foster
Contact Me/ 801.472.7134/ firstname.lastname@example.org
Ellis, Albert, & Harper, Robert A. (1975). A New Guide to Rational Living. North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book Co.
Richo, David (2005). The Five Things We Cannot Change: and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them. Boston: Shambhala.