Now you should be starting to get a better understanding of how your brain works, how all those distractions are negatively affecting it and how you can use meditation and ‘flow’ in order to start taking back control.
But you can go further with this and start engaging in whatever brain state you want at any given time. In order to do this, we’re going to be looking at something called ‘CBT’ or ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’.
So exactly what is this?
CBT is a psychotherapeutic technique. That is to say that it is a technique used by psychologists when they’re trying to treat patients with anxiety disorders or with mental illnesses. It is a framework that has become very popular and is now the preferred method of treatment on the UK’s NHS and in many other health institutions.
The reason for this is twofold:
To understand what CBT is, it can be helpful to understand what cognitive psychology and behavioral psychology are individually.
Behavioral psychology is an old school of psychology that was big in the 50s. The central tenet here was that all our behavior and thought processes were learned through repetition, association and observation.
The most famous example of behaviorism in action is the study ‘Pavlov’s dogs’. Here, Pavlov demonstrated that he could get a dog to salivate when it heard a bell, simply by ringing the bell every time it got fed. Eventually, this ‘classical conditioning’ taught the dog to associate the bell strongly with the experience of getting fed.
Behaviorism attempted to explain every single aspect of our psychology this way. For instance, we learn to walk by learning to associate certain sensations with falling and others with success. And we learn our personality through reward and punishment from others.
Phobias and other psychological problems were the result of unhelpful associations forming and these could be treating by creating new associations.
Over time though, behaviorism began to lose favour as it appeared to over-simplify matters. In a strict behaviorist view of psychology, there is no room for our thought processes or our internal experience. What happens when someone plans out an action? What happens when we imagine something happening?
What about intention?
Cognitive psychology added this element in and looked at the brain more like a computer with a ‘program’ running. The program is our thought process and we use this to decide what to do and how we’re going to do it.
CBT meanwhile elegantly combines both these approaches into one unified theory. We still learn through association but this can just as easily occur in our own heads. In other words, if you’re convinced that you’re going to fall off of a height, then you’ll keep rehearsing it happening in your mind and you’ll keep thinking to yourself that you’re going to fall. This alone is enough to create the association and to make us afraid of heights.
So to treat a phobia, CBT will focus on reconditioning and creating new associations but it does this both physically and through changes to your internal monologue.
So how might this work in practice? Generally, it involves several steps and several different techniques that combined allow you to control the way you think and feel.
The start, is to identify the way you feel and what you’re thinking when you’re doing something…
And guess what… this is where mindfulness comes back in!
Say you’re afraid of public speaking and you want to try and get rid of that phobia forever. The first thing you would do is to be more mindful and to listen to your own thoughts and reflect on them. If you’ve been practicing, this should rob them of their power as you become detached and aloof from those thoughts.
But at the same time, you’re also going to make a note of them so you can try and change them…
Another technique used for the same end is ‘journaling’. This involves writing down the feelings as they come to you, or writing them in a journal at the end of the day. That evening routine is coming in handy at this point! See… it all comes together…
The next steps all fall under the category of ‘cognitive restructuring’. You can think of this as ‘reprogramming’ yourself…
Thought challenging is simple: it means that you’re looking at those thoughts you made a note of and now you’re challenging them and testing whether or not you really think they’re true.
So if you’re afraid of public speaking, it may be that you think things like ‘I’m going to stutter and everyone will laugh at me!’.
In thought challenging, we’re going to deconstruct that belief and see if it really is likely/if it is anything to really be afraid of.
Ask yourself these things and focus on the fact that the worst case scenario really isn’t all that bad. Once you can start doing that, you’ll see that there’s nothing to be afraid of. You can even repeat a maxim to yourself as a ‘positive affirmation’:
“It really doesn’t matter what these people think of me. It really doesn’t matter what these people think of me.”
This is one of the most unpleasant and upsetting treatments that are a part of CBT but it’s also by far one of the most immediately effective. The idea is that you’re looking at those fears you have and then you’re just going to test if they’re true.
So in other words, if you’re afraid of stuttering when you do public speaking, you’re now going to go up on that stage… and you’re going to not say anything. You might purposefully stutter. You might say the most awkward thing that comes to mind. You’re testing the theory that people will laugh.
And guess what? 9/10, you’ll find that your imagination was worse than the reality. Now people will just wait politely because that’s what people do. Either that or they will laugh… but it won’t really matter.
Finally, exposure therapy is just like ‘reassociation’. This just means you’re going to face your fear repeatedly until that gets desensitized. In the case of public speaking, this might mean that you start attending classes to become a stand-up comic. Scary? Definitely. Effective? You bet.