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FIRST PERSON: What I Learnt from CBT

I have recently completed a course of CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy, where I attempted to learn new ways of reacting, and thinking about things. My problems could be summed up as follows:

  • Constantly on edge – a perpetual feeling of impending doom.

  • Overthinking things – going over and over why things happened, and how to avoid having bad things happen to me in the future.

  • Not enjoying the present

Before CBT, in an attempt to find a solution, I focussed on the past. The one part of my life I cannot control. This seemed logical to me as it allowed me to look at what went wrong and make changes. However, the lessons are usually learned without too much analysis. We often dwell on the past because we can’t make sense of the present.

In the past, when faced with a problem, I would react badly, therefore creating two problems – the problem itself, and my reaction to it. So with that knowledge, I decided to drop the past, and change this pattern.

I procrastinate. I will only react to something if there is a negative consequence facing me. I will put off completing work until the deadline is right there. I will pay bills at the very last minute. I will reply to someone’s email when I think that the person may now be getting annoyed.

This means that in the back of my head there is always rattling around an ever growing list of things I am just about getting away with, and I wait anxiously for the one thing to happen that will snap me out of it – the threat of a consequence.

Taking control of this has already dramatically altered my life.

By only looking at the present and the future, I have come up with some pretty obvious but overlooked ways to stabilise my mood:

  • Deal with things that need to be dealt with.

I have a choice here. My reasons for dealing with something have shifted from reaction to action. This is something that I try to prove to myself daily. I force myself to complete tasks, and feel the benefit. Because that’s what CBT is about: you have to apply the theory.

  • Enjoy the present.

If you are focusing on the past, or how things might be in the future, you are missing out on the present. We also tend to focus on what is wrong, not how to make things right. It’s a subtle difference. We look at the ideal, and that might mean money or time that we haven’t got. So we drop it. 'If I can’t have what I want, then FORGET IT. I will have nothing'. If we approach this differently, we can start to enjoy what we already have. I’ve only just started to do this, and make the best out of my current situation rather than focus on what I haven’t got.

  • Create the future

If you are not enjoying the present, and you are putting off dealing with things, and also dwelling on the past, then you are already stuck. The feelings that are left are all negative. You feel depressed and confused about the past, under pressure about the future, and unsatisfied with the present.

Creating the future is about doing the very next thing you need to do to get where you want to be, and we will often not do it because what we want seems so distant, so difficult to achieve. We think – how can doing one small thing make things better? But one action leads to another action that leads to something else, perhaps something unexpected.

When I start to feel stressed now, I ask myself to check four things.

  • Am I putting anything off? And it’s usually yes. So I pay that bill, reply to that email, get a haircut. Whatever it is.

  • Am I making the best out of my situation? And it’s usually no. So I do that. I shift my focus away from the ideal (which has usually been planted there surreptitiously by adverts and peers).

  • Am I thinking about the past? And it’s usually yes. So I stop that, and do something else.

  • Am I moving forward? And it’s usually no, so I identify where I want to be. And I write a list of how I get there. And then I do the very first thing on that list.

Trying to avoid problems, and chase happiness are natural reactions to wanting to stay, you know, sane. But aiming for contentment and arming yourself with the tools to, if not solve, then at least tackle your problems – that’s where long term happiness lies.