Have you ever considered that you have the ability to pick out your thoughts just as you pick out your outfits each morning? It’s true. Based on the thoughts you select, you get to determine how your felt experience of the day will go.
As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Eat, Pray, Love: “You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate.”
One proven, research-based way to do just that is by using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a therapeutic modality focused on helping people to make positive changes by altering their thought processes, which then shifts their behavior. It’s grounded in addressing real-world problems, and its goal is to improve people’s overall mood and functioning.
The core idea of CBT is that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are all connected. CBT tells us that our thoughts and emotions are powerful forces. They can contribute to greater functionality and well-being, or they can hurt and tear us down on every level.
CBT helps us learn how to harness the power of our internal processes. In behavioral therapy, the goal is to correct our faulty behavioral patterns by creating more functional action plans.
Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Addiction?
CBT is an avenue for changing dysfunctional behavior, which is one way to define addiction.
Though the brain disease model of addiction prevails at present, some experts consider addiction as more of a behavioral disorder than a disease.
Dr. Sally Satel, a top psychiatrist, author, Yale lecturer, and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Scholar, explains her reasoning on the question, Is Addiction a Disease?:
“In the end, the most useful definition of addiction is a descriptive one such as this: Addiction is a behavior marked by repeated use, despite destructive consequences, and by difficulty quitting, notwithstanding of the user’s resolution to do so.”
What CBT Can Do For You
In CBT, you work to notice and then change your automatic negative thoughts. This practice then prompts you to change your negative feelings and actions.
For example, you might go through your day with a tape of harsh judgment constantly rolling through your consciousness: “I’m a screw-up, I’m the worst, I’m too fat, I’m too skinny, I’m too much, I’m too little…”
The list goes on and on. It’s so familiar that you hardly notice it anymore. Nevertheless, these thoughts raise your stress level, make you feel terrible, and erode your ability to make healthy choices.
When you identify with the ticker-tape of painful judgments, you’re more likely to reach for substances as a kind of solace. Addiction and judgment go hand in hand.
You’re also more likely to use because that constant stream of negative thoughts makes you feel hopeless. You think, “What’s the use of trying? I’m already awful, so why not drink the booze and take the pills?”
The Power of CBT
With CBT, you learn to first recognize that these automatic negative thoughts are playing through your brain. After that, you learn to get some distance from them. You discover that you have the power to question and disbelieve them, that you can choose healthier thoughts instead.
There is tremendous power in learning to work with your mind in this way. Simply learning to observe your thought patterns rather than automatically identifying with them is a hugely helpful step.
For author Julie Barton, the ability to identify and challenge her automatic negative thoughts was a game-changer. At age 22, Barton suffered an episode of major depression that led to her collapsing on her kitchen floor and contemplating suicide. As she noted in a 2017 interview:
“I didn’t know that the way you think is going to lead to the way you feel. I was really, really hurting myself by thinking, ‘I’m bad and I’m stupid’ and then turning around and having a happy face for people. It’s torture to do that, and a lot of women live that way.”
The Limits of CBT
That said, there are limits to what CBT can do. It can be a great first step to working with the depression, anxiety, and trauma that drive addictive behaviors, but it’s not usually enough all by itself.
As CBT focuses more on the mental level, it doesn’t address the underlying core emotional issues of shame, hopelessness, and helplessness that underlie substance abuse.
In order to recover from addiction, it’s important to address both the mental and emotional issue. In partnership with a professional counselor, you can use CBT along with other therapeutic techniques and counseling strategies designed for emotional-level healing. (Examples include Gestalt therapy and related inner aspect work.) You can also seek out a more intensive outpatient or inpatient program.
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