This spring, I did a full 12 week course of cognitive behaviour therapy, commonly referred to as CBT, blended heavily with mindfulness teachings and techniques.
CBT is used to help people with various mental health issues. The therapy looks at how we think (cognitive), how we feel (emotion), and then how we act (behaviour), and vice versa.
As many people with mental health problems will tell you, once you get into a bad cycle of thoughts, it can feel like an automatic loop that you cannot get out of, trapped within your own mind in an endless barrage of thoughts and feelings that seem to only grow deeper and darker.
But CBT teaches you that this dark cycle isn’t inevitable.
By using CBT, you learn to distance yourself from yourself, and begin to look at how you think and then feel and then behave etc. The idea is that you can then recognise your own irrational thoughts/actions/feelings mid-flow, and, rather than being sucked into them, stop and consider rationally, ‘Why am I thinking/doing/feeling this’. It’s all about rationality; considering your own thoughts rationally, controlling your reactions rationally, and remaining rational despite any flying emotions. Eventually, through understanding your own cognitive-behaviour, as it were, the idea is that you can catch yourself in your irrationality, and correct your course, before you begin to slide down into that seemingly inescapable cycle.
But getting yourself to that point of understanding, through a course of CBT, can be distressing. I’ve heard many stories of people not finishing a course, and I can’t say I blame them. I can still feel myself (irrationally I’m sure) getting anxious and on edge even now when I just think of going to the centre where I had my therapy. CBT is not a pleasant or in any way soothing experience. Your therapist wants what is best for you and for your health, I’m sure, but sometimes it really does feel like they’re not on your team, and I can see how you might even start blaming them for making you feel like you do.
Maybe this is the point at which to remind yourself that you’re not here for comfort, that’s what your friends and family are for. You’re here to work at something important, and when was anything that is really worth having easy?
But in my situation, I was kind of past caring how uncomfortable anything made me feel emotionally. I wasn’t so much determined to stick out the full course, as I didn’t care. It was something to do. It passed the time. If there was progress, great. If not, what was there to lose?
On reflection, I think it would be strange if CBT wasn’t an uncomfortable experience. As everyone’s minds work in unique ways, the therapist has to ask you directly about your worst thoughts, and your worst feelings, and your reactive behaviour. And that is distressing. They’re asking you to try to clinically open up and recall, as factually as possible, how you think, feel, and act, when you’re at your most vulnerable. If you really want to make it work, you’re forced to be truly honest, not even with them, but with yourself. It’s like saying to someone, ‘Go on, dig up your blackest thoughts, lay them on the table, and now analyse them.’ Who isn’t going to feel at least a little shaken by that, unless you’re some zen master, and in which case, you probably don’t need CBT for your mental health.
Not only can this be terrifying, it can also feel really quite embarrassing. It’s asking you to recall your demons, look them in the face, and then analyse them rationally. As if you’ve been making a big deal out of nothing. But of course, you must remember that it isn’t nothing, it is a big deal, it’s mental illness. These are the thoughts and feelings that you’re living with every damn moment of your waking life. And that’s why you are referred a full course of CBT, not just a few sessions. And that’s why you do CBT with trained professionals. Accepting, analysing, and then challenging your own thoughts, all the while trying to put aside your most powerfully sweeping emotions and remain rational, is a huge ask of anyone, illness aside. It takes patience. It takes strength. And it takes courage.
For me, CBT worked wonders on my anxiety, and I am back in control of my inner panic alarm. I can go outside, and about my daily life again without that constant choking feeling, like I’m clinging to the edge of a hideously high cliff, with one slip resulting in a breakdown. I do still struggle in loud environments sometimes, at social events, or even if my heart rate gets up too much when running or swimming, and I still have to take a step back when there’s too much emotion (happiness included-it’s so cruel) going on. But it’s one heck of an improvement from six months ago. And, of course, my beloved yoga and meditation has also helped me immensely in all sorts of ways- I’d recommend it to anyone.
But, unfortunately for now, my depression continues, with some days harder than others, but always there haunting me in the background. So, I’ve been referred on to further emotional based psychotherapy, hopefully starting soon (although the waiting lists are always about 2-3 months long). I continue to seek balance in my life, practise patience with my mental health day by day, and just try to give myself the best chance I can to get better.
I really hope you’re all well.
Stay breezey 🍃