6 Things you didn't know about CBT (and can use to help handle stress)

Odds are, if you have an interest in mental wellbeing (and who doesn’t?), you’ve heard about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

CBT is an evidence-based technique focused on helping people learn how to change their negative, or "unhelpful" thoughts and behavior patterns.

Used to treat everything from problems with anxiety and depression to eating disorders, there’s a high likelihood that you or someone you know has tried CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in their efforts to feel better. Widely touted in self-help books and articles, and frequently used by trained mental health professionals, CBT gets promising results.

However, it’s important to note that this method requires quite a bit of effort, at least to start.

That said, with some time and elbow grease, CBT can make it easier to manage your stress without self-destructing into that spiral of negative thoughts that leaves your stomach churning and your head aching.

It's worth giving it a chance, right? Because let’s face it, stress is never going to disappear completely. So isn’t it better to be prepared?

What’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, anyway?

According to the Mayo Clinic, CBT is one of the many techniques commonly used in therapy and counseling sessions. It’s been successfully used to manage serious mental illnesses, but it’s also an effective way to handle stress for pretty much anyone who suffers from negative thoughts from time to time (so...basically everyone).

So how does CBT work?

As explained by the American Psychological Association for the rest of us, who aren’t practicing psychologists, CBT consists of learning how to identify negative or unhelpful thoughts and behavior patterns. Then, once someone’s in the habit of recording thoughts and identifying the repetitive thoughts that are causing stress, it’s time to work on replacing those thoughts and behaviors with responses that are better for mental wellbeing.

One of the main assumptions this technique is based on is the fact that our thoughts are just that, thoughts.

And since thoughts are not an indisputable life truth of some sort, we can work to change them and the behaviors that result from them. Want to give it a shot? Read on for some surprising ways that CBT can help you and your team.

Surprising benefits of CBT

You can harness the power of CBT without a therapist

One of the most exciting things about CBT is the fact that you can learn how to use these techniques on your own time, without scheduling yourself in to see a counselor or mental health professional. According to Psychology Today, self-directed CBT via books, internet-based programs, and applications can be very effective and make people feel "substantially better".

If you’re interested in learning about CBT via books before you decide if it’s right for you and your team, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies has given this list their seal of approval. And if you’d rather wet your feet without deep diving into theory, a phone or app-based mental wellbeing service that uses techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy might be a better fit.

Remember, the important thing is recording (and reflecting on) your thoughts on a regular basis, not where (or how) you get it done.

CBT doesn’t require expensive tools

All you really need to use CBT to help you handle stress is a place to jot down your thoughts (this can be an old-school spiral notebook or the even the "notes" function on your phone—and—this just might be the most important tool—the wherewithal to reflect on your thoughts.

Want more guidance than just a notepad can provide?

There are plenty more inexpensive and free resources available. On-paper people check out a book on CBT from the library and take notes in a three-ring notebook. But for the rest of us, it’s probably easier to learn CBT techniques on the one thing we take pretty much everywhere—our mobile phones.

@tom_rogerson via Unsplash

CBT teaches you how to think about your thoughts

Most of us don’t consciously think about our thoughts. But we probably should. Because the fact of the matter is, many of the thoughts that run through our heads on repeat do us more harm than good.

Thoughts like, "I’m a terrible public speaker and I’m going to get a bad performance review" don’t help anyone, least of all you, thinking them on repeat.

When you’re stressed like this, venting by getting your thoughts out of your head and onto the page can help calm you down, and gives you a chance to work through why you’re feeling what you’re feeling in a private, safe way. It’s like psychologist Ryan Howes explains in Psychology Today, "It’s not so much what you write about but that you take the time to write. Introspection takes practice."

By taking the time to write down your thoughts regularly in a journal, sometimes called a thought record in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you’ll start to see which thoughts are unhelpful. You’ll also learn to take proactive steps to keep those thoughts from taking the helm and ruining your day.

You may decide you like to mentally yell "stop" at harmful thoughts, or maybe simply recognizing them as just thoughts without judgment and letting them disappear is more your style. Like what you’re thinking, it’s really up to you.

CBT can help you stop procrastinating

If you find yourself putting off tasks on a miles-long to-do list, you’re not alone. Per research published in the New York Times, one in five, or 20% of people consider themselves to be "chronic procrastinators", wherein they delay beginning or finishing a task to the point of discomfort, anxiety, and regret. Which sounds like a real drag, to say the least. But even if you don’t consider yourself a pro at putting things off, it’s unlikely that you never procrastinate.

Fortunately, CBT can help you spend less time thinking about what needs to be done, and more time actually making things happen. How? Typically, we delay starting (and finishing) projects because of our negative thoughts about them. By identifying unhelpful thoughts such as "I’m not qualified to do this" or "I just don’t have enough time" and thinking through whether or not they’re actually true, we can pinpoint why we’re avoiding doing something, and get back on task that much sooner.

For example, if you’re putting off getting started because a project feels huge and overwhelming, Psychology Today recommends using CBT’s ABC’s to tackle the task. Start by figuring out if there’s an antecedent (A) affecting you–i.e. is the environment you’re working in a distraction or a challenge? Fix that, first.

Next, tweak your behavior (B) to make your goal more manageable—instead of trying to get everything done in one long work session, commit to working on smaller chunks daily.

Finally, use Cs or consequences to reinforce the behaviour you want to continue doing. Not sure what all of this talk about ABCs really means?

Here’s a real-world example: Olivia has been putting off working on the annual productivity reports all year and now she’s down to two months before she has to hand it over to her supervisor. Logically, she knows she’s down to the wire, but every time she sits down and tells herself she’s got to get to work on the report, now, or else, she ends up in her inbox answering emails. Using the ABCs of CBT, here’s what Olivia could do:

Olivia can start by eliminating antecedents (As) that move her attention away from where she needs it to be. When she wants to work undistracted, her email should be completely closed out and alerts should be turned off. If constant emails are an issue for her, she could even set up an autoresponder to inform coworkers that she’ll be responding to emails after a set time.

Next, Olivia should think about why she’s procrastinating. If she feels overwhelmed, and like there’s just no way she can possibly get it done on schedule, it’s time to change her behaviors (B) and break things down into smaller pieces. Once she’s organized the project into more manageable chunks, she can do a little daily.

Finally, Olivia will want to create positive consequences (Cs) that reinforce her behavior—maybe after each hour working on the report, she’ll treat herself to a coffee or something else she enjoys.

CBT might help you sleep better

What? CBT works for insomnia and trouble sleeping? Indeed it does. Harvard Medical School found that people using CBT to treat their insomnia had as good as or better results than people who took prescription sleep aids.

You might be surprised to find out that there’s even a specific type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, called CBT-I (I is for insomnia) that’s an approved method for treating sleep disorders without medication. This particular type of CBT consists of having patients first record their sleep habits, and then implement modifications over time.

Even if you don’t suffer from chronic insomnia, negative thought patterns and behaviors probably keep you from falling asleep as quickly as you would like at times.

Fortunately, CBT teaches you how to identify these thoughts, making it easier to challenge them and replace them with more realistic thoughts so you can get some rest.

You can use CBT to disconnect from work

If you regularly have trouble disconnecting from work during your time off, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help.

To get away from repetitive thoughts and obsessive email checking, create a specific plan of what you’re going to replace these thoughts and behaviors with—something like "relax" or "play a game" isn’t going to cut it (Harvard Business Review).

You’ve got to include a time, a place and an action.

And when intrusive thoughts come up and won’t bug off, use another technique from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to keep from ruminating about work stuff. Take a limited time, ideally ten minutes or less, to get your feelings out on paper or in an app-based journal, and then get back to your leisure activity of choice.

Do you use techniques from CBT like journaling to manage stress? Do you keep track of your thoughts on paper or your phone? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com. We'd love to hear from you.