Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment approach that has statistically been shown to be effective in addressing a variety of mood disorders and psychological problems. It is my belief that a key component to successful cognitive behavioral treatment is counselor-to-client socialization of theory and concept.
It is essential that clients become socialized to the cognitive model — understanding the rationale behind CBT’s effectiveness — to gain maximum benefit. For that reason, I have developed a script that counselors can use with the clients they serve. This script aims to provide a blueprint for live, in-session socialization to the cognitive model and provides a platform to transition into routine practice of cognitive behavioral technique in future sessions.
If I were to ask you to think of a palm tree, what do you think of? You probably just imagined a palm tree. If I were to ask you to think of your very first car, what do you think of? You probably just imagined yourself either in or next to that memorable first automobile. If I were to ask you to think of your favorite food, what do you think of? You probably just imagined your meal of choice.
Now, if I were to ask you to feel anxious, what do you have to do? Most people say they need to imagine a stressful scenario to feel the emotion of anxiety. The point is that we can instantaneously produce any thought. However, when it comes to producing an emotional state, we first need to think of something in order to feel something.
The formation of emotions is a biological process, meaning that it is impossible to shut off or terminate from human experience unless we suffer serious medical injury that leads to such complications. With that being said, there is a specific sequence of internal and external events that not only create, but contribute to, the emotional experiences of you, me and everyone else with whom we share this wonderful planet.
For an emotion to be formed, one must first encounter a situation. A situation is anything that an individual becomes aware of. It can be an external event such as a person, place, thing or activity. It can also be an internal event such as a particular thought or emotion.
Let’s say that tomorrow, I wake up, get in my car and start my drive into work. I encounter a traffic jam, which I anticipate might make me late to my destination. As I approach, I become aware of the traffic jam itself. Both the awareness of the traffic jam and the traffic jam itself become the situation at hand.
Our brain is like a thought warehouse. It has a job of producing thoughts throughout the day — every second, every minute, every hour.
What is a thought? A thought is a sentence that our brain produces about the situation at hand. Thoughts have sentence structure. Each thought has punctuation. It can also take the form of an image or movie that we experience in our mind.
On some occasions, we verbalize our thoughts out loud. Sometimes they stay silent. Regardless, they affect how we feel. If I am driving to work and become aware of the traffic jam, my brain might produce the thought of, “Oh no! I am going to be late. I am going to be behind all day, and I will get reprimanded by my boss. This happens all of the time!”
The first thoughts that our brain produces about a situation at hand are automatic. We don’t really have control over them. But as I mentioned earlier, these thoughts affect how we feel, so they are important to accept and to understand.
Once our brain produces a thought about a situation at hand, there is the onset of some kind of emotional experience. How is an emotion different from a thought? Emotions can be categorized into mad, sad, glad and fearful. Any emotion that we have at any given time will likely fit into one of these categories of primary emotions.
There is also a subtle category that some identify as “neutral emotions.” However, we are rarely taught about what neutral emotions are. Throughout our life experiences, we are given the message that there must be a way to feel and that emotions need to be either pleasant or unpleasant. Therefore, if we aren’t particularly happy, sad, fearful or mad, we tend to say that we are feeling “nothing.”
Emotions are a biological process. And because our thoughts are automatic, we never really have an absence of emotions. So, when we are feeling “nothing,” we are actually feeling “neutral.” Descriptors such as “content” and “OK” best describe a neutral emotional state.
Now, let’s refer back to the traffic jam scenario. While sitting in the traffic jam, I am having the thought, “Oh no! I am going to be late. I am going to be behind all day, and I will get reprimanded by my boss. This happens all of the time!”
Because of this thought, I am most likely to be feeling anxious. Anxiety is most closely related to the primary emotion of fear. Some emotions occur parallel to physical symptoms as well. For example, if I am sitting in my car feeling anxious from the thought about being late to work, I may also notice that my hands have started to sweat. Physical symptoms help us to identify and label emotions.
So, it is important to pay attention to your patterns in your physical symptoms as you experience emotional states. In general, emotions give us information about the situation at hand. However, it is then our job to examine that information accordingly.
Our behaviors are influenced by the emotions we experience. Behaviors can usually be observed by others. Based on the specific characteristics of the behaviors — and the specific characteristics of the reactions that the behaviors provoke in others — these behaviors can help us to get closer to our goals, push us further from our goals, or neutralize the pursuit of our goals.
What does it mean to neutralize the pursuit of our goals? Well, some behaviors neither get us closer to nor push us further from our goals. These behaviors can be referred to as “neutralizing behaviors.”
In the example of sitting in the traffic jam and feeling anxious, I may react to the intense anxiety by engaging in behaviors such as beeping my horn and yelling at other drivers.
Results can be defined as a set of benefits or consequences that are produced by one particular behavior or set of behaviors. Results can be desirable, undesirable or neutral.
Desirable results are outcomes that take us closer to our goals. Undesirable results are outcomes that push us further from our goals. Neutral results neither take us closer to our goals nor push us further away.
In the traffic jam example, the behavior indicated was beeping the horn and yelling at other drivers. We can anticipate potential results that those behaviors may produce. As a reminder, the goal in that scenario is to get to work on time, or at least not too late, and safely.
One possible result of beeping my horn and yelling at other drivers is that other drivers may begin beeping their horns and yelling at me. This additional conflict may cause my anxiety to intensify further. At the same time, everyone beeping their horns and yelling at each other will not change the fact that I am sitting in the traffic jam itself. Therefore, this outcome can be categorized as an undesirable result.
Wrapping it up
The goal of this type of cognitive behavioral style work is to identify where in the process above an individual may have personal control or personal choice of changing the problematic patterns or tendencies. By examining the above scenario in that way, individuals will be able to conceptualize aspects of personal choice and change that can help them reduce intense emotional distress, engage in healthier behaviors, and achieve more desirable results — first in the above scenario and then with the real-life stressors that have brought them into treatment.
Use the following reflection questions to get started with application of this skill:
1) If you were stuck in a traffic jam similar to the one described above, what would be going through your mind? What are some of the automatic thoughts you would be having?
2) What kinds of emotions would your automatic thoughts produce? Would you be noticing any symptoms of those emotions in your body?
3) What type of automatic behaviors might you engage in based on the influence of those emotions or physical symptoms?
4) What type of outcomes or results would those behaviors likely produce? Would those results be desirable, undesirable or neutral based on your goal of getting to work on time, or not too late, and safely?
5) Is there anything else you might be able to say to yourself in the scenario about the traffic jam that would produce less intense distress? If so, what are those thoughts? Remember, thoughts come in the form of sentences or images.
6) If you were able to insert those new thoughts the next time you experience a traffic jam, what types of emotions would those thoughts likely produce? If they do not produce less intense distress or new emotions comprehensively, try identifying new thoughts (sentences) until you find one or two that either reduce the distress or produce new desirable emotions.
7) With less intense distress or new desirable emotions, what are the new behaviors that likely would be produced as a result?
8) Given the likelihood of those new behaviors, what would happen next? In other words, what would be the results of those new behaviors? Would those results be desirable, undesirable or neutral based on the goal of getting to work on time, or not too late, and safely? If those results are desirable or neutral, then you have successfully completed examination of this scenario. If the results are undesirable, repeat steps 1 through 8 until you are left with desirable or neutral results. If a neutral result does not make the situation worse, then it is desirable in itself.
9) What are some situations in your life that have caused stress?
10) What were the automatic thoughts running through your mind at the time?
11) Given those life situations, what were the undesirable results that were occurring?
12) Given those life situations, what were the behaviors that were contributing to those undesirable results?
13) Looking back, could you have said anything different to yourself in those moments to reduce the level of stress? If so, what would those coping thoughts be?
14) Given those life situations, what are examples of healthier behaviors that you want to be able to engage in?
15) Given those life situations, what emotions would be needed to make those healthier behaviors easier to achieve?
16) Given those life situations, what results would you want to be able to achieve, experience or receive?
17) With those desired results in mind, what can you say to yourself about those life situations that might help to produce healthier emotions and healthier behaviors?
18) Copy down those thoughts. Put them on an index card. This will serve as your coping cue to take with you. It will be a reminder that although we may not be able to fix a stressor at hand, we do have the opportunity to access alternative thoughts. It is those alternative thoughts that kickstart the process of reduced distress, healthier behaviors, and the satisfying experience of more desirable results. Thus, we are creating an opportunity for achievement as we assist ourselves in getting closer to our goals, even if certain stressors stay the same. With consistent practice, we teach our brains that we control our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. We give power to ourselves in knowing that we do not need situations to change in order to feel better and do better.
Brandon S. Ballantyne has been practicing clinical counseling for 12 years. He is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor who specializes in the treatment of anxiety and depression. He currently practices at a variety of different agencies in eastern Pennsylvania. Find him on the web at https://thriveworks.com/bethlehem-counseling/our-counselors/, and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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