My Experience with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

A little over five years ago, I (unwillingly) started going to therapy. When I was first informed that I would be going, whether I liked it or not, I was angry and scared. Angry because I felt betrayed; the last thing I felt I needed was therapy (or help at all for that matter). Scared that this was the beginning of a life sentence in therapy, scared at what people would think if they knew, and scared about opening up about things I hadn’t shared with anyone before. But most of all, I was scared that going through therapy would change my life the way I knew it. Looking back, my life has indeed changed, but not at all in the way I was afraid of. 

What is CBT anyway? 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common psychotherapies used today. The main focus is examining how the person’s thoughts and emotions (cognition) and behavior are interrelated through feedback loops. There is a cycle that cognitive behavior feedback loops through: first, thoughts create feelings, then feelings create behaviors, then these behaviors come back and reinforce thoughts.  For example, maybe you’re nervous about going on a date (cognition), so you cancel the date (behavior), which leads to you being nervous about going on any dates at all (reinforcement). While this cycle is something that everyone is likely to experience, it often becomes maladaptive in individuals suffering from a variety of mental disorders. 

In CBT, the therapist works with the patient to link thoughts and emotions to behaviors and situations, with the goal being that the patient can eventually start to recognize maladaptive components of this cycle on their own. This is known as reappraisal or cognitive restructuring, and is why patients in cognitive behavior therapy are generally going to be assigned “homework”. The skills being taught in CBT are meant to be learned to last a lifetime, and therefore the more practice the better. Because of this, patients in cognitive behavioral therapy play an active role in their treatment. This can be seen as a downside to some, because if the patient isn’t willing to put in any effort then it’s likely that they will experience little to no benefits of CBT. On the other hand, however, this gives the patient great control over their own treatment, so it doesn’t feel like someone is in control of your life.

What have I taken away from CBT?

There are a lot of things that I have taken away from cognitive behavioral therapy, but I wanted to highlight a few that I think have made the most difference in my life. The first thing is learning to be more mindful, a skill that has served as a foundation for learning so many other things. I’d define mindfulness as simply delving deeper into the awareness surrounding your body, your mind, and your actions. It’s allowing yourself to slow down when your mind is running 1000 miles an hour and try to identify what exactly is causing all this stress. It’s simply sitting back and looking at what’s happening inside your mind and taking notes as though you were an outsider. Mindfulness doesn’t mean you try to change what you’re thinking but simply being aware of it. Working on this has helped me become better equipped to handle emotions like sadness, anger, and anxiety that can become overpowering if not dealt with. In addition to mindfulness, I also wanted to highlight how CBT has helped me to strengthen relationships with my friends, my family, and even myself. I’ve gained a lot more confidence than I had 5 years ago, have learned the importance of being self-compassionate, and have also gotten better at communicating. After having to learn to open up to a therapist who was at one point a stranger, it’s become a lot easier for me to open up to my closest friends. 

Would I recommend CBT to anyone who is thinking of beginning therapy? 

Absolutely. I can say with 100% certainty that therapy has changed my life for the better. As cheesy as this sounds, I would not be the person I am today if I had not been exposed to and continued with CBT. However, this revelation comes after years of treatment and starting from a place where I didn’t want anything to do with therapy. So, to anyone thinking of beginning therapy or to anyone who is being made to start, know that it probably won’t be that great right off the bat. In fact, at first, it might even seem to make you more stressed and anxious than how you felt before starting. But what’s important is that you stick with it, put in the work, and know that through doing that, things will get better. I’ve noticed that in our society today there seems to be this idea that once a person goes to therapy, they’ll be fine - as though just the act of going is enough to cure them of any and all problems. While being consistent in going is absolutely important, that’s only one small piece of the truth. Therapy, of all types, is hard work. It takes a lot of work from you as the client to begin noticing the benefits. I don’t say this to scare anyone, but to encourage those that feel like it’s not working or that it’s not worth trying to keep going and give it a try. Chances are, you’ll never look back.

A final note: 

I found that CBT has worked incredibly well for me, but it’s certainly not going to be for everyone. While cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be helpful with many different mental disorders, it certainly isn’t a cure-all. Therefore, it’s important to talk to a professional to find out what would be best for you individually. If you have done that and are now looking to start CBT, don’t be afraid to try out different therapists to find one that you feel truly comfortable with. Therapy will not be able to truly help if you don’t feel that you can be yourself with and trust the person in front of you.