The power of the human mind is pretty amazing, when you think about it. This one part of our bodies controls everything in our bodies, from the breaths we take to the conscious movement of our muscles. Our heart beats because of our brain. We feel emotions because of our brain. We have the ability to learn because of our brain. Unfortunately for many people, we can also make destructive choices because of the thoughts that run through our brain each and every day.
The way we see the world around us is the reality in which we live. When we make a conscious decision, we generally choose behaviors based upon those decisions. If a small child believes there is a monster under the bed, he might pull the covers over his head. He isn’t pulling those covers over his head to hide from something that isn’t scary, of course. He is behaving in a manner that is consistent with this thought process – his reality. When an adult who suffers from depression chooses to use drugs, they may be reacting to their reality, doing whatever they can to make themselves feel better. Perhaps this person simply doesn’t feel that they are worthy enough to have a better life, as they struggle with self-esteem issues born of years of abuse or neglect. Maybe, they are anxious due to obsessive or compulsive thoughts associated with a social anxiety disorder that causes them to believe that “everyone” is judging them.
If this is true — if our behaviors are based on our thoughts, whether real or imagined — is it then possible to change behaviors by changing our thought patterns.
According to the National Institutes of Health, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that can be used for the treatment of many types of mental illnesses and addictions.
What Does ‘Cognitive’ Mean?
According to an article in SharpBrains, the cognitive functions of the brain are less about what we know than they are about how we think. Cognition is a process of activities in the brain that give us choices on how to react or behave. The various aspects of cognition include our perceptions, our ability to concentrate, our short-term and long-term memory, and our understanding of language.
For example, if we hear a friend shout our name from the other side of a busy street, we must have the ability to perceive that our name has been called. Hearing our name called is an automatic response that involves the eardrum, sound waves and nerve impulses to our brain. But actually recognizing our name, or even the voice that called it, is a matter of perception. We call upon another aspect of cognitive function when we turn to look at whoever called to us: our motor skills. We make a conscious choice to turn the muscles in our body in such a way that we can see who is across the street. Memory comes into play next, because we must recognize the person. Short-term memory may be employed if it is someone we’ve just met recently, perhaps earlier that day. Long-term memory is activated if it is a friend from high school whom we haven’t seen in months or years.
This is where cognitive thinking can get a little dangerous. We must now make a decision. What is our next action going to be? Whatever decision we make based on the cognitive functions we’ve just experienced is known as “behavior.” We can choose to smile and wave at our friend, or we can choose to hurry to the corner and cross with the appropriate lights, or we can choose to rush headlong into traffic without looking to make sure the way is clear or safe.
How Can Behavior Be Dangerous?
Sometimes, our perceptions of our own reality cause us to think irrational thoughts. Regardless of whether the thoughts are real, we base our decisions and behaviors on what we believe to be true or real. If we believe the road is clear, we will have no problem rushing across it. If we believe that we are outnumbered by speeding vehicles, we will choose to cross legally using the lights, even though we’re terribly excited to see our friend.
When it comes to mental illnesses, including drug and alcohol addiction, the way our brain interprets or perceives the world around us may be skewed to the point that our behaviors become inherently dangerous. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for instance, drugs change the way the neurotransmitters in the brain move and are interpreted by the neurons. This is why, when an individual has certain drugs or certain levels of alcohol — the amount changes from person to person depending upon several factors — he or she may not remember what they did while they were under the influence. Because drugs can change the way our “feel-good” neurotransmitter dopamine behaves in the brain, our perception of reality changes and our behavior follows. As drugs and alcohol take hold and addiction develops in earnest, our cognitive abilities are continually affected by the disease, causing compulsions to seek out and abuse drugs. Our behavior – to abuse drugs – is based on our cognition that drugs make everything better.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Is All About Changing Perception and Action
There are several aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy that can help an individual change the way in which they see the world around them and, consequently, change their behaviors. The first, and not the least, of which is the fact that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is not an ongoing, have-to-do-it-forever kind of treatment. Unlike old-fashioned talk therapy, which an individual can participate in for years before any real breakthroughs are made, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is usually only about 16 weeks, or sessions, long. The number of weeks can vary depending upon progress and circumstances, which is another terrific aspect of the therapy style.
Because each person is unique and brings his or her own perceptions and realities to the process, it is incredibly flexible. Other terrific aspects of CBT include:
- Learning and unlearning. CBT is based upon the idea that a person’s behaviors are learned. If a person learns that drugs and alcohol make them feel better about themselves, they can unlearn this belief structure and learn that drugs and alcohol are dangerous and addictive substances that cause irrational thoughts and behaviors.
- CBT is an immersive program. When an individual is caught in the cycle of mental illness and drug addiction, these behaviors consume his or her entire life in many cases. Homework and a constant attention to the process of learning sober habits and lifestyles are integral parts of CBT.
- Attainable goals are a focus of CBT. During each session, the therapist will have a specific objective in mind. It is not their job to tell an individual how to reach that objective, but to help the individual formulate their own goal, as well as a pathway to the goal through use of empowered thinking and appropriate behaviors.
- Tools and life skills. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy does not tell a person how they should feel or act, but gives them the tools and life skills to determine how they want to feel and how to get there.
- Rational thinking is based on reality and not a perception of reality. Many times, we base our behaviors on our idea of what others might be thinking, feeling or how a specific situation may affect us, when, in fact, the situation is nothing like what we thought. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches us to think logically and realistically, as well as to ask questions about what is really going on in our lives, rather than basing our decisions on assumptions.
- Understanding the world around us and learning to make informed, rational choices – that is what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can do for someone who may need a little help dealing with their perception of reality.
Who Can Benefit From Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
According to the National Institutes of Health, CBT can be used for many types of mental illness. Some of the disorders that benefit from CBT are also treated with other types of therapy, including family therapy or group counseling, but CBT can be of additional benefit. A few of the disorders treated with CBT include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Mood disorders
- Eating disorders
- Trauma disorders
- Substance abuse and addiction
If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction, or a Dual Diagnosis condition, contact us today to learn more about how CBT can help.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.