Our brains are thinking machines. Our thoughts shape our day to day experiences and our understanding of who we are as individuals. This is great when we are coping well, performing highly and feeling good. But what happens when our thoughts are unhelpful? What happens when we get stuck in negative ways of viewing our world, or understanding our life?
Different ways of working with unhelpful thoughts in CBT and ACT
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are therapeutic approaches which emphasise the relationship between your thoughts, behaviours and emotions. Both perspectives view thoughts as being key in determining our emotions, and work on changing our thoughts, or the way we related to them, as being a key part in helping people achieve relief from their symptoms or live a happier life.
One of the goals of traditional CBT is often to change the way we think about events, in order to change the way we feel about them. Specifically, CBT focuses on challenging our unhelpful thoughts and beliefs and adopting more positive and balanced ways of thinking. When we experience mental health problems or get stuck in our distress, our thinking is often characterised by different ‘errors’ in our reasoning that end up making us feel worse.
Some common thinking errors are found in the form of:
- All-or-nothing thinking: Viewing things on one extreme or the other – E.g. You’re either intelligent or you’re not, nothing in between.
- Catastrophizing: Believing something is much worse than it actually is – E.g Making one minor mistake at work and thinking you’re going to get fired.
- Overgeneralisation: Taking one negative event as being a recurrent pattern in your life – E.g. Failing a test and thinking that you never do anything well.
- Mind-reading: Assuming others are thinking a certain way without evidence to support these assumptions – E.g. My colleague didn’t wave at me this morning, she must be unhappy with me.
- Emotional Reasoning: Assuming that your feelings are facts – E.g. I feel useless, so it must be true.
In CBT, your therapist would work with you to reduce the impact of unhelpful thoughts by:
- Helping you to understand how your thoughts lead to your emotional and behavioural reactions
- Helping you to observe how you interpret situations and events in your life
- Helping you to identify automatic negative thoughts and core beliefs and test the accuracy of your thinking
- Helping you to develop alternative balanced thoughts and integrate these into your life
How is ACT different?
Throughout life, we will experience many feelings and emotions that are inherently painful – normal feelings of frustration, disappointment, regret, sadness, anger, to name a few. And even on a perfect day, we could easily make a negative self-judgement (e.g. I’m not smart enough), be caught up in an unfavourable comparison (e.g. He’s better than me), or relive a painful memory (e.g. I can’t believe that she’s gone) and feel pain. For some people with mental health problems, the understanding that their unhelpful thoughts are not logical does not result in emotional change or a reduction in the frequency of these thoughts. ACT can be a good approach in these circumstances as it doesn’t aim to necessarily change your thoughts, rather it works on how you relate to them, and on reducing their negative impacts on your life.
The overall aim of ACT is to help you build a rich and meaningful life, and to give you skills to better cope with the pain that life inevitably brings. It does this by teaching you mindfulness skills to handle painful thoughts and emotions effectively, and helping you to clarify the values that motivate you to make changes in your life. One of its core messages is to accept what is out of your control, and commit to taking action that enriches your life.
In ACT, your therapist will help you to address unhelpful thoughts through six core processes aimed to increase your psychological flexibility. The greater your flexibility, the greater your ability to respond effectively to your problems and challenges.
These include ACT strategies which are:
- Contacting the present moment – Consciously paying attention to your experience in the present moment helps you to accurately perceive what is happening. When you are caught up in thoughts about the past or future, it prevents you from engaging fully in what you are doing.
- Cognitive Defusion – Stepping back and simply noticing your thoughts and emotions can help you to gain perspective. It can also help you to make more conscious choices on how you want to behave in general or how you respond to unhelpful thoughts.
- Acceptance – Obsessing or worrying over certain situations or events can cause you to feel stuck, especially when they are outside of your control. Opening up and making room for unwanted thoughts and emotions can help you to move forward.
- Self-as-context – The ability to separate yourself from your thoughts and observe what you are thinking and feeling at a given moment, helps you to evaluate the functionality of your thoughts. From this “observer” perspective, you may find it easier to let difficult things go.
- Values – Having clearly defining values provides guidance on how you want your life to be like, which in turn motivates and guides your actions in general, and how you’ll respond to unhelpful thoughts.
- Committed action – Going against your values can often lead to negative feelings such as guilt or shame. By making a commitment to behave in ways that are consistent with your values, you are likely to feel more positive and content.
These processes are interdependent and not viewed in isolation. Through the use of ACT strategies, your therapist will help you to:
- Experience your feelings, sensations, and thoughts in the here-and-now rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future
- See your thoughts for what they are, rather than what they appear to be: as reality, objective truths, and threatening events
- Be able to observe and acknowledge your thoughts, rather than try to fight, run away, or be overwhelmed by them
- Make more conscious choices that are consistent with your values, while actively working towards living the life that you want
Which approach is for me?
Every individual can present with a unique set of challenges and traits that influence how they respond to certain therapeutic approaches. Therefore, it is about what works for you – There is no single “right” approach for any particular problem. Perhaps you have tried other strategies and found that they weren’t very helpful. Regardless of whether you choose ACT or CBT, both require active involvement and the practice of skills outside of therapy.
If you feel that your unhelpful thoughts are interfering with your life and you would like to learn some evidence-based strategies to change your thoughts, or the way that you relate to them, consider making an appointment with us at M1 Psychology.
Gregory, B. M. (2010). CBT skills workbook: Practical exercises and worksheets to promote change. PESI Publishing and Media. Eau Claire: WI.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2010). The Empirical Status of the New Wave of CBT. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3). doi:10.1016/j.psc.2010.04.006.
Neenan, M., & Dryden, W. (2015). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: 100 key points and techniques (2nd ed.). East Sussex, UK: Routledge.