What is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy? Roughly speaking the idea is that our thoughts affect our feelings and actions. So if we change our thinking we can change our feelings and behaviour.

What Cognitive Behaviour Therapy seems (in my experience) to be most use with is those things where we realise our thoughts aren’t sensible – the phobias, overwhelming fear of spiders and other things.

My problem with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is that it is oversold. It is advocated as a solution to all problems and I think that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has two major difficulties.

Firstly the theory is quite crass.

  • A moment’s reflection will show us that sometimes our feelings shape our thoughts as well as our thoughts shaping our feelings.
  • A second, deeper, problem with the theory is that it defines thinking as processing information. But this is only part of the story, thinking is based on how we see the world and ourselves (perception) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy doesn’t have much to say about this. Perception isn’t ‘objective’ we don’t see something and then decide whether we like it or not. We don’t see a building we see an ugly-building or a gloriously-beautiful-building or an it’s-OK-building; we don’t see a glass of water we see and I’m-thirsty-glass-of-water or an I’m-not-thirsty-glass-of-water.

Secondly the theory should predict that the deeper work of changing our thoughts should get the results. That is: it is the later sessions of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy that bring major change.

But usually it is the changing perception that brings the benefit to people – just observing how they think and how this affects them.
It is the change in perception (which is not a big part of the theory) that often brings the changes.

There is some research on the effectiveness of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy on some conditions, such as depression. Overall the findings seem to be that it may be as much use as anything else (but no more – a long way short of the more exaggerated claims for its effectiveness). An excellent introduction to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is a show from Radio National’s All in the Mind Program. (Radio National is Australia’s national public radio station). This is the link: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2003/888013.htm

Finally a guess: why is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy so popular? My guess is that it appeals to the academic types who do research and like to believe that it is their thoughts that make the difference. But this may be unkind.

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