5 Surprisingly Effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises
Developed in the 1960's and widely practiced today, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a scientifically proven method of treating a variety of psychological issues --- from schizophrenia to anxiety and depression to substance abuse. Taking a holistic approach to mental health, this technique involves analyzing one's relationship to negative thoughts and behaviors, disrupting the negative feedback loop, and creating a new and healthy alignment of thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
While CBT does involve meeting with a licensed therapist on a regular basis, there are a few tips that anyone can follow to assist in improving their mental health. Here are five that you can get started on right away.
1. Engage in active problem solving
Take specific actions to find solutions and make the best of a situation. This will help you regain a sense of control in your life and can be effective with a variety of life obstacles including unemployment, illness, or the loss of a loved one.
Problem solving steps:
- Determine your problem orientation --- your way of thinking about the problem, your attitude.
- Define your problem(s) in a clear and concrete fashion.
- Brainstorm and evaluate potential solutions.
- Take appropriate action based on your previous steps.
2. Restructure your thoughts
Identify negative thought patterns and disrupt them before they lead to negative behavior. If you are depressed, for example, a vicious cycle can develop between your harmful thoughts, unhealthy emotions, and damaging behavior patterns.
Try to stop this feedback loop. Look out for the running commentary going on in your head. Don't take it at face value. Examine your thoughts and realize that they are just thoughts. This can help stop unhelpful thinking patterns and allow you to make a conscious effort to change them.
Thought restructuring steps:
- Use a thought diary to record your thoughts and emotions and various points throughout your day.
- Write down automatic thoughts (thoughts that provide a running commentary of our experiences).
- Write down all emotions related to those thoughts and rate their intensity on 0-100 scale (typically there is more than one and no emotion has the same intensity).
- Write down reactions to the experience.
3. Break up your tasks into smaller more manageable steps
Tackle difficult and seemingly overwhelming goals by systematically breaking tasks into smaller steps. By having small wins throughout the process you'll be able to get much further than thinking about the issue as one big looming chore. Once you get going, a snowball effect takes place --- and you'll be amazed at how far you've come.
4. Schedule new activities
Engage in activities and behaviors that you wouldn't normally do. Start off slow and gradually increase the frequency in which you do your new activity/behavior. This will help bring you out of your shell and bring new responsibilities that can have beneficial effects to your entire well being. Pick up a new hobby, join a fitness class, volunteer your time --- basically do anything that involves new activities and new responsibilities.
5. Practice mindful meditation and relaxation breathing
Meditate regularly. Mindful meditation helps you disengage from obsessive and harmful thoughts by learning to connect to the present moment. It allows you to silently reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and senses all in the present moment without judgment. Don't actively try to not think about anything. Thoughts will inevitable arise in your mind, simply let them fade away and stay in the present moment.
If you're brand new to meditation and not sure where to start --- do some breathing exercises. Relaxation breathing helps decrease physiological signs of anxiety (sweating, shallow and rapid breathing, increased heart rate) and has other proven health benefits.
Tips for beginner meditation
- Sit upright in a comfortable position
- Close your eyes
- Focus on your breathing
- Take slow, deep "belly" breaths
- Aim to have at least 6 deep "belly" breaths to help reduce stress level
- Practice regularly
For more advanced meditation guidance, try Headspace. It's an iPhone and Android app with hours of guided meditation courses --- and it's perfect for all types of meditators.
Each of the above techniques are effective in helping to create a more psychologically grounded lifestyle. When implemented together along with regular professional help, they can truly transform your life.
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