CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This apparently has become the most popular form of treatment for the umbrella of anxiety disorders, according to what I have read and learned. But how does it work exactly?
In a nutshell, a person develops an anxiety disorder due to various factors, among these, genetic, and environmental. My understanding is that a person in their early stages developed some unhealthy beliefs about themselves, and subsequently through time over stressed their body. Anxiety turned from simple worry, to a debilitating condition. Every time you worry, a stress hormone is released in the body, and it subsides when the “perceived threat is gone.” But as the body gets flooded with stress hormones for a prolonged period of time, the body starts overreacting, and the nervous system gets overstimulated, wherein it starts overreacting to stress and produces abnormal reactions that only those with the anxiety disorder can relate to.
CBT gets to the root of an anxiety disorder. An unhealthy, unrealistic belief was developed in a child at an early enough age, built upon personal experiences they went through. Those experiences became the foundation of an unhealthy belief that kept on building upon itself as the child matured and became older. A person with any belief tends to look only at evidences that support his/her belief, and ignore evidences going against their belief. So the innocent child continues to pay attention to those things that fosters and strengthens the unhealthy belief. As the person gets older, so too does this belief become more firmly rooted in that persons heart.
CBT seeks to resurface these limiting, negative beliefs, to question them, and to change them. It is to take the negative belief that is well rooted, to bring it to the conscious mind, and to question it for what it really is. To look at it objectively and to evaluate if it is indeed still applicable and valid. And if not, to begin to believe in what is more accurate about the perceived situation.
Let’s take an example of how a limiting belief is established. An innocent child goes for the first day of school. He is nervous about how it’s going to be. Sitting there, the students look at him weird as if something is wrong with him. Eventually, as the early days go by, maybe they start picking on him. They call him loser, wimp, and basically find every excuse to make fun of him. He then goes to someone’s house for a family party and he is happy to find some new people his age to become his friends. He feels hurt from the school kids and is hoping for a better scenario here. But then these so called “friends” are also calling him names, taking behind his back, and making fun of him too, calling him a weirdo and a loser.
This child advances to another class with new students, and is hoping for a better situation with his peers. All he wants is acceptance from his classmates and some people he can call his friends. But to his dismay, these students just find things about him to make fun of, and call him insulting and degrading names, try to embarrass him, and ridicule him for things he is doing. They simply don’t accept him as a decent or cool guy. He at this point is starting to realize that maybe there is some truth to what all these people are saying. I mean it has been consistent, hasn’t it? What everybody around him is saying, and observing about him is pretty consistent, so there has to be truth to what everybody is saying about him. “I really must be a big time loser,” he starts believing. “Anything I do, I can’t seem to have and keep real friends,” he concludes. “Whenever I play with the kids, they will find something to make fun of me.”
And there you have it. The seeds of the anxiety disorder have been planted. From there on out, this person will automatically notice things that affirm this belief of his, feeding more fuel to the fire. And if he experiences more of the same thing throughout his formative years and beyond, it will only further deepen his negative image of himself, as being an unacceptable loser, who doesn’t deserve to have true friends.
In his effort to protect himself, he developed some coping mechanisms to deal with the ridicule and lack of acceptance. Maybe he started doing things to impress his peers. Maybe he became super perceptive to the likes/dislikes of his peers so he could mold to them. Maybe he became a super nice guy in order to make sure he doesn’t get on anybody’s nerves. There are many possibilities. But the point is, that there were some mental coping mechanisms that this person found out to be useful in protecting himself against the “threat.” And these mechanisms sure enough developed into mental habits.
These habits became so common, that the reason for thinking/doing it in the first place was forgotten. Here we have the crux of the CBT challenge. We are acting in a certain way, feeling anxious in certain situations, and we don’t know why. All we know is we feel anxious. The initial thoughts that caused us to feel anxious are no longer in our conscious, but hidden deep somewhere inside us. And we can’t seem to put our finger on what it is. We just mentally cover it up, or think something else, or whatever coping mechanism we have been using for most of our life to deal with it.
This is the CBT challenge. How do you systematically resurface those hidden beliefs covered up years ago, stored away deep somewhere in your heart? It is like putting a puzzle together, trying to make sense of it all. Oftentimes, hypotheses have to be made trying to understand what exactly is the thought process behind certain scenarios that you constatntly feel anxious in. And moreover, how do you go about changing your belief about a certain situation that seems to have been solidified in your mind and heart for most of your life? You may logically recognize something for what it is, but you emotionally still feel the anxiety. As the saying goes, “My mind believes something, but my heart is telling me otherwise.”
This is the CBT challenge. Are we up for it? إن شاء الله