I’m looking for a psychotherapist, what is CBT and how does it relate to mindfulness?

For those of you who are new to the world of psychotherapy I thought I would give a brief introduction to cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT as it is more widely known and discuss its connection to Buddhist psychology.

When you start looking around for a psychotherapist you’ll notice they’ll often describe the style or orientation of therapy that they work from.  Psychologists work from different stances or theoretical perspectives which leads them to view behaviors of people (namely you when they talk to you) through a particular lens.

Psychodynamic therapy for instance originally was influenced by the work of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, and more contemporary forms of psychodynamic therapy are influenced by modern childhood attachment theory.  Psychodynamic therapists tend to believe unconscious drives in combination with our childhood developmental experiences are significant influences in how we behave today.

Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT as it is frequently referred to on the other hand focuses primarily on thoughts and behaviors as an indirect way of influencing our moods and emotions.  Why indirect? Because it’s hard to directly influence how we feel.

For instance, you can’t just walk up to someone and tell them to fall in love, or feel happy if they’re not inclined to already.  “Just feel better!”  Nope, not likely if we’re feeling down or sad.  On the other hand, you could make a convincing argument why things aren’t so bad and in theory influence someone (or yourself) to feel at least a little better.

In fact, this approach was used in early forms of CBT.  The idea was that if you would carefully examine your thoughts you would likely find that the thoughts contained assumptions or common logical fallacies that were leading you to feel negatively about yourself or the world. These negative thoughts were thought to contribute to depression.

By challenging these internal thoughts as if you were your own lawyer the idea was you’d start to fall out of the spell of these negative thoughts and begin to feel better and less depressed.  This approach tended to work well in research studies with depressed patients.  Because of its effectiveness in clinical research, CBT became the “gold standard” for psychological treatment of major depression and many other psychological disorders and is frequently used as a standard treatment type in hospitals today.

More recent forms of CBT use a mindfulness approach to our internal dialogue. Mindfulness, borrowed from Buddhist psychology, is considered a contemporary form of CBT because it is another way of dealing with thoughts. Rather than get into an internal argument with yourself, using a mindfulness based approach you just treat your thoughts from a distance.  You practice watching your thoughts rather than getting caught up in them.  You imagine to yourself that the thoughts that you are experiencing are more like watching an exciting (or boring) movie instead of being caught up in their power.

This mindfulness approach was also found to be effective in research studies but one benefit to this approach is that you don’t need to constantly come up with lots of logical arguments why the thoughts you are experiencing are wrong, you can just sit and pay attention to them.

In fact, “just paying careful attention to things” appears to have very powerful effects on our behavior.  For example, Dr. Judson Brewer, gave this wonderful TED talk on how we can use the power of attention to break difficult bad habits like smoking.

More on CBT, mindfulness, and Buddhist psychology in future posts.

With Compassion,

W.C. Ark, PsyD
PSY29365

As always, if you find yourself struggling with mental health issues please seek a professional’s help.  Blog posts not intended to replace a professional’s advice.

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