5 Things I Learned from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, where we discuss all things surrounding mental health and recovery.

May is also my birthday month, and a few years ago I took the decision to give myself a truly valuable birthday gift: mental wellness.

I decided that, after literally a decade or more struggling with anxiety and depression, I would go to my doctor and talk about my struggle. I was lucky in that I was listened to. This isn’t always the case for people dealing with mental illness.

My doctor referred me to an excellent CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy service so that, in addition to my medication, I could begin to learn tools that would help me improve aspects of my life where I struggle.

I’m now two years on from that decision and am pleased to say that my life has changed enormously because of what I learned over the course of the nine months in therapy. I once was so anxious that I would routinely lie awake at night feeling physically sick over things like making a telephone call, or going out in public. That is no longer the case.

As I look to my next birthday in a few days’ time, I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on my experience of CBT in the hope that it might help other people who might be thinking about therapy.

1. CBT Focuses on Practical Tools, not Counseling.

When some people think of therapy they think of sitting in a chair and talking about their past at length and analyzing their choices and feelings in minute detail. There are some therapies like that, but CBT is a bit different.

My therapist led me through my past experiences over our first couple of sessions as she sought to get to know who I was and what brought me to her office. But then we stopped talking about past experiences in detail.

What we began to focus on were things like identifying stressful incidents and the thoughts that I had which triggered my anxiety.

So, for example, we discovered that I am not naturally socially anxious. I’m actually quite a social person. However, my experiences with bullying and the resulting feelings of judgement, self-criticism and self-loathing made current social situations incredibly stressful for me.

My therapist gave me ways of breaking the chain of thoughts that were self-criticizing so I could focus on new, neutral thoughts — something that is really important for a realistic world view.

2. CBT is About Getting Neutral, So You Can Be Kind to Yourself.

One thing that may surprise people who have never been through CBT is that the therapy isn’t about changing negative experiences into positive ones. Sometimes life just sucks and we have to accept that.

Rather, it is about re-framing perceived negative experiences in a neutral way. For example, a common thing among anxiety sufferers is that we analyze everything we may have said during a social interaction and look for something that was “wrong” or “bad”. This is exhausting and self-harming.

What CBT taught me to do was stop second guessing how others perceived what I might have said during a social interaction and to instead look at it as an exchange of ideas and opinions. I learned how to notice my intent during the interaction, the other person’s intent and, crucially, to just let it be what it was.

That’s still something I struggle with, but by challenging the voice of criticism in my head, I am slowly learning to live without a need to be perfect and please others all of the time. That leaves me so much more energy to enjoy life.

3. CBT is Hard Work.

I must admit that when I went into therapy, I was naive. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect it to be easy. But I didn’t anticipate how tough the work would be.

I remember very clearly the day that we uncovered that my mother’s death at an early age had left me with a feeling that I had failed her, that I had betrayed her by not being with her in her final hours, and that I had somehow corrupted myself. That I was bad. Fundamentally. Completely.

It was one of the hardest days I’ve ever experienced. To feel all those feelings, all at once. To know that, for the past 15 years of my life I had whispered that lie to myself over and over again. I came home and I curled up on my bed and slept. I did little else for a few days.

I point this out not to deter people from CBT but to communicate that it is not a magic cure. It is tough and it can be punishing, but for me it was necessary and freeing.

4. CBT Doesn’t Help Everyone, But Other Therapies Can.

I would be negligent if I didn’t point out how incredibly lucky I was that CBT worked so well for me. It fit my way of viewing the world, quantifying it and working through it. I even enjoyed the homework.

But CBT isn’t always a good fit for everyone. It is not unusual for people to try CBT and find that it does not harmonize with their world view or that it doesn’t suit their personality or particular problems.

If that is the case, there are a range of other therapies that may be suitable, including Dialectic Behavioral Therapy right through to clinically led Art Therapy and other interventions.

They key here is to acknowledge this from the outset and have realistic goals for treatment. That can be difficult, but a therapist can help guide that process.

5. Being in Remission Doesn’t Mean the End.

I haven’t had a major depressive episode for a year now, and while I occasionally have bouts of anxiety that reach a high level, I don’t feel like it controls me or my behavior. It is something I live with, but that is the critical part: I live. I don’t let it force me to hide away like I used to.

Being in remission brings its own set of worries, of course. If I have an off-day, I sometimes catch myself fretting. Is this the start of the slide back into ill-health? But I tell myself that the fear is natural. That, all I can do is try my best to manage my emotions in healthy ways.

That means practicing my CBT in my day-to-day life by challenging intrusive thoughts. It means exercising regularly so I stay physically fit and my mood remains even, and–critically–it means being honest with myself about what I want and how I am feeling.

Remission doesn’t mean I am cured. It is possible that I will never relapse, but it is more likely that at some stage I will. What CBT did was show me that there is a path to walk out of that dark place. That there is help when I need it.

Please don’t hesitate to get the help you might need.

If you would like to talk to someone about your mental health confidentially, here is a link to a database of helplines from around the globe.

Related at Care2

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Marie W
Marie W4 months ago


Carole R
Carole R5 months ago

This sounds like good advice.

Sherri S
Sherri S10 months ago

We need to take of all aspects of health, especially our mental health as it influences our overall wellness

Janis K
Janis K10 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Winn A
Winn Adams10 months ago


Lisa M
Lisa M10 months ago


Lisa M
Lisa M10 months ago


Roslyn M
Roslyn McBride10 months ago

A good article, thanks.

Anne M
Anne Moran10 months ago

Well-written article there Steve,, but don't be so hard on yourself... - You have to learn to love and embrace your uniqueness...

Julie W
Julie W10 months ago

Well-written, encouraging article from a writer who is prepared to be honest about his emotions. Thank you Steve!