Move over, Freud: There’s a new, popular kind of therapy in town, and it doesn’t involve lying on a couch or talking about your mom.
It’s called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and it’s actually not that new, having been around in one form or another since at least the 1960s. CBT is a form of talk therapy where you interact with a trained therapist, but it isn’t about dredging up your past. Instead, it focuses on the present and teaches you to recognize how you respond to stressors in your life and how you might change your responses in order to ease your distress.
“The therapist and client work together, with the understanding that each person has expertise. The therapist has expertise about how to change behavior and the client has expertise on their life experiences and what matters most to them,” says Kristen Lindgren, Ph.D., a psychologist and CBT expert who practices at University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt.
CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are interconnected and that changing one can change the others. This may sound trendy, but it’s also effective and has been rigorously studied. There are variations of CBT for all kinds of mental health problems, from anxiety to depression to schizophrenia to substance use disorders.
The goal is to learn skills you can use outside the therapist’s office to address real-life problems, Lindgren says. The more you practice, the more of a habit CBT skills will become.
“If you’re someone who has good intentions but need someone to be accountable to, I would make an appointment with a therapist,” Lindgren says. “But if you know you’re a person who is good at being self-taught, it’s reasonable to think about doing it on your own.”
Here are her tips for practicing the techniques at home (or wherever you happen to be).
Change your perspective
Using a technique called cognitive restructuring can help you modify problematic thoughts, which in turn can help you change your behavior. The next time you notice yourself feeling anxious or depressed, ask yourself: What am I thinking about or what emotions am I struggling with that might be causing me to feel this way? Notice if any particular thoughts or memories give rise to distressing physical symptoms; you can even make a list. Doing this will help you begin to understand how your emotions and thoughts are connected and what triggers you.
Balance your thoughts
Many mental health struggles involve distressing, but inherently flawed, thoughts or predictions that influence behavior. For example, if you get anxious when you’re in crowds and thus actively avoid them, you might tell yourself that if you tried to go to a crowded place—like a sports game or concert—you’d panic, do something to embarrass yourself, and wouldn’t enjoy it. That belief then reinforces your avoidance.