Therapy is not everyone's first choice for treating anxiety. It's expensive, it requires several visits to a stranger's office, and it cannot be completed every day because of cost and the therapist's schedule. There's a reason that people tend to want to avoid therapy.
But for those that do choose therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most effective. This brings up an interesting question: are there cognitive techniques you can complete at home that may be an effective anxiety treatment?
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The Cognitive Part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy involves the use of two different types of psychology that work well together - cognitive psychology and behavioral psychology. They're two theories that are useful for the evaluation and treatment of anxiety disorders. They are a part of many different types of effective coping treatments, including relaxation strategies. To learn more ways to reduce anxiety, take my anxiety test now.
Cognitive therapy focuses on thoughts and thought processes, and less on behaviors, actions, and reinforcement. Those that suffer from anxiety often have automatic thoughts that tend to be incorrect or irrational based on the situation, and fuels their mental health experience.
To understand this, we'll look at an action followed by potential thoughts the person might experience:
_Action:_ Someone doesn't laugh at your joke
- "They don't think I'm funny."
- "They don't like me."
- "No one likes me, I'm not good enough."
_Action:_ You can't remember if you turned the stove off.
- "My house is going to burn down!"
- "I'm putting everyone in danger!"
- "I'm a terrible person!"
_Action:_ You're about to get on a plane.
- "I don't feel safe."
- "What if the plane crashes?"
- "I feel sick. Something terrible is going to happen to me, I know it."
_Action:_ Heartbeat increases
- "I'm having a heart attack."
- "I'm about to die."
- "Something is terribly wrong!"
As you can see, these are all different types of examples. Not all of the thoughts are that obvious either. Some are simply internalizing things that you shouldn't be internalizing (for example, believing that you see disapproval on someone else's face when they look at you, even though they haven't said anything and you haven't done anything), while others can be responsive (for example, believing something bad about yourself when you "see" that disapproval, even though you don't know the person and shouldn't care what they think anyway).
There are also cognitions you may not realize you're having. Often those with some types of anxiety don't even have that many negative or anxious thoughts, but simply feel anxious, and it may be because they're experiencing anxious cognitions in other areas of their life - for example, their health or their friendships.
Anxiety isn't as simple as just cognitions alone. That's why experts now use cognitive behavioral therapy, since the combination of the two is far more effective than any one individual one. But cognitions like this do play a significant role in the development of anxiety.
At Home Cognitive Techniques
Cognitive therapy involves people challenging your thought processes and restructuring them to be more productive and healthy. It can be a bit difficult to do by yourself because often the reason you have these thoughts is because you cannot control them.
However, there are some strategies that you can try in the comfort of your own home, and they all involve writing.
Writing Out Your Thoughts
It starts by simply writing out all of the thoughts that come into your head. This is an important component of improving your cognitions because it lets you see them all on paper. Not all of your thoughts have to be the negative ones. If you have any recurring thoughts, whether they're about anxiety or not, write them down.
Simply by writing them down you'll have the opportunity to see if they're logical. Often we don't take the time to examine our own thoughts and see how much sense they make. Instead, we try to fight them away and think about them as little as possible (which of course never works). Writing them out is the first step towards seeing them and understanding them.
Challenging Your Thoughts
Of course, a big part of cognitive therapy is also challenging these thoughts. You ideally want to make sure that you're aware of your negative thought patterns, so that you can learn to overcome them.
Your initial journal had you write out any thought, but with a special emphasis on the thoughts that make you anxious and the things that you fear. Challenge each thought with 3 to 5 more reasonable and more likely thoughts that you should be having if you didn't suffer from anxiety. For example:
_Negative Thought:_ I'm worried that if I go to the party I'll embarrass myself.
- I probably won't embarrass myself.
- Who cares if I embarrass myself? What do I lose?
- I'm going to go and have fun, because that's the point of going.
_Negative Thought:_ I saw a spider. It could have killed me!
- Only one spider in the world is toxic enough to kill, and it rarely bites.
- The spider is more afraid of me than I am of it.
- I can squish it or take it outside easily and it won't hurt me.
By challenging your thoughts in this way, you start to realize how silly some of your thoughts are, and how little your fears matter in life. Whether it's a phobia, or difficulty in social situations, or a health fear, or what have you, there are countless examples of ways you can challenge these thoughts in order to get used to the idea that your initial thoughts aren't always accurate.
Other Ways to Change Cognitions
The above strategy is one simple example of how you can start trying to change your cognitions today. Another is fun and similar. Called a "positivity journal" the goal of this journal is to make sure that you get used to seeing the positives out of life, rather than the anxieties and the negatives.
You have to commit to this every day - even on weekends. In the journal, every night before bed, write out 10 (minimum) positive, specific things that happened to you today, like "my boss congratulated me at work." They must be genuinely positive and specific to that day.
If you do this every day, eventually you'll start to notice things throughout the day that are positive, and you'll think to yourself "I need to write this in the journal." If you find that 10 is to easy, move up to 15 to 20, but make it your mission to never go lower than your goal number. This doesn't affect current cognitions, but rather changes the way you think throughout the day in a way that is psychologically beneficial.
Get The Anxiety Help You Need
Remember, cognitive techniques are not necessarily a standalone anxiety treatment. They work, but psychologists agree that more comprehensive anxiety strategies are necessary.
Don't be afraid to see a psychotherapist if necessary. Working with someone directly can also be a tremendous help.
Also, make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test to find out more about how to control your anxiety symptoms from the comfort of your own home.
Beck, Aaron Temkin. Anxiety disorders and phobias: A cognitive perspective. Basic Books, 2005.
Butler, Gillian, et al. Comparison of behavior therapy and cognitive behavior therapy in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder . Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 59.1 (1991): 167.
Deacon, Brett J., and Jonathan S. Abramowitz. Cognitive and behavioral treatments for anxiety disorders: A review of meta-analytic findings . Journal of Clinical Psychology 60.4 (2004): 429-441.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.