CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and I had never heard of it until my GP referred me for it. I had a lot of questions about it: What is CBT? How does CBT help? Will CBT get rid of my anxiety? Thankfully, my experience with it answered a lot of questions.
Firstly, let’s clarify the concept of CBT. The idea is that our thoughts affect our circumstances and feelings rather than external factors influencing it. For example, you are not anxious of flying because of the plane, but rather what your thoughts are about flying causes you to feel afraid. Those thoughts then lead to certain behaviours. Those behaviours can be negative (such as avoidance) which then increases your anxiety. By understanding which thoughts lead to which behaviours, we can modify our thoughts to then modify our behaviours into something more constructive. If we can rationalise our thoughts, we won't have such negative feelings. That’s the idea anyway.
CBT is designed to help you overcome difficulties in life by identifying and modifying unhealthy thinking patterns. You first become aware of the negative thought, challenge it and prove that it wasn’t a factual thought. There are a number of thinking errors discussed during therapy, and once you identify which ones you have accepted, you work on counteracting them.
I had two lots of CBT sessions; one for anxiety and one for depression. They were a year or so apart but obviously the second time round, I had more understanding of what the sessions would entail. However, both sets of sessions were quite different. The first lot was for anxiety because at the time, that was affecting my life the most.
The first thing I noticed were there were a lot of worksheets that I had to do for every session. They were good because they got me thinking about certain issues I was having but I felt as though I had to give particular answers, and if I didn’t give those, then it wasn’t accepted. It was as though the answers I gave weren't valid. That led to me modifying my answers into something less genuine so that the therapist would feel like we were moving forward.
One instance of that was thinking patterns. My therapist was adamant that we needed to change the thought that was triggering my anxiety. The thing is, I never felt like a particular thought was causing my anxiety. I had never struggled in school previously and nothing had changed dramatically in my educational life (like changing schools) that would bring on particular worry. Therefore, how could I change a thought to stop my anxiety?
I still continued to do the worksheets but they weren’t really helping in any way. It all began to feel very “textbook”, even the sessions. I wasn’t provided with tools tailored to me that would help me overcome it and it just felt like the therapist was determined to put a label on my anxiety… It became “driving anxiety”, which obviously has nothing to do with school.
Every session I would feel worse and worse, and it was clear that my therapist and I clashed so I decided to stop going. Once we reached an action plan to overcome driving anxiety, I refused to do it. That was when the therapist wrote to my GP that I was uncooperative. It was hurtful as I felt I did my best but I drew the line where I had to. Driving to different places everyday, by myself, would in no way help my anxiety in classrooms and exams.
However, my experience with CBT for depression was a good one. It felt as though I was given certain tools to deal with it and we made an action plan in regards to ensuring that I didn’t get stuck in a rut. The only real difference was that I had a short period of depression compared to anxiety. It was something that I did not struggle with before and I believe was mostly caused by medication. The process was similar but the therapist and I did not clash.
At the end of the day, CBT is able to help a lot of people but that doesn’t mean it can help everybody. If you are going to start CBT or you are on a CBT programme, don’t feel you have to do it. Although I would recommend you try it, that doesn't mean you have to stick with it if you feel it isn't working. It’s important that you feel trust with your therapist. It’s also important to do what’s best in your interest. If things aren’t working, go back to your GP to discuss some other options. It’s important to find what support works for you, and thankfully I had other options.