Our emotions, thoughts, and behavior are inextricably linked. When any one of these components is altered, it affects all the others in the system. When people are depressed or anxious, usually thoughts, behavior, and emotion are in a negative feedback loop, feeding off one another, and maintaining the negative mood state. Cognitive restructuring is a treatment designed to help people recognize and significantly alter thought patterns, as a way of shaking up the emotion system and reversing the course of depression and anxiety. Cognitive Restructuring is a useful tool for understanding and reacting differently to the thinking patterns that negatively influence our mood and behavior.
There are numerous methods to identifying and altering dysfunctional thought patterns. Generally, they all begin with identifying automatic thoughts, those thoughts which provide a running commentary to our experience. Instead of accepting all of these thoughts as accurate reflections of reality, the cognitive therapist helps the patient to learn to think of these thoughts as guesses about what is really going on, and consider alternate points of view. In this way, the client is able to develop a more balanced way of thinking about whatever is causing him or her distress.
For example, in the case of someone with depression, because of the negative feedback loop between thoughts, emotions, and behavior, the depressed person’s thoughts tend to be pessimistic, filtered through “smoke-colored lenses.” This results in negative emotions such as sadness and despair. These thoughts and emotions make it more difficult for the person to call a friend, do his/her best at work, or engage in activities that normally improve that person’s mood. By looking at the dysfunctional thoughts associated with the depression, and seeing them as guesses, that person is better able to consider other points of view about his or her situation, leading to less hopelessness and sadness, which in turn results in more behaviors that promote happiness and satisfaction.
There is a good deal of research supporting the effectiveness of cognitive restructuring with a number of psychological problems. These include phobias, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and alcohol and drug problems, to name a few.
Mindfulness therapy represents a revolutionary innovation in cognitive-behavioral therapy, with most new scientific research looking into the numerous psychological benefits of mindfulness-based interventions. Despite its recent attention in the scientific community, mindfulness comes from an ancient Buddhist meditation practice that has been around for millennia.
Although originally aimed at spiritual training of the mind, contemporary psychology researchers have adapted the most powerful components to treat everything from depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, OCD, PTSD, chronic pain, and many other psychological problems. This has resulted in cognitive-behavioral treatments that are even more effective. Examples of mindfulness-based therapies include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. The latest research indicates these treatments can be more effective than traditional talk therapy in treating a host of problems and disorders.
The most cutting-edge research on mindfulness has found that mindfulness can actually cause the brain to change in very significant ways. Brain imaging research has shown that mindfulness can actually alter the structure of the brain. For instance, cortical thinning, a natural occurrence associated with aging and dementia, is actually slowed when a mindfulness protocol is followed. These studies have also found that people who use mindfulness have increased empathic awareness, a trait associated with emotional intelligence. These people also have better natural emotion regulation abilities than those who are not involved in mindfulness. Several studies have found that after just several weeks of mindfulness training, parts of the brain associated with positive emotion are more active, and areas associated with anxiety are less active. There is also a significant amount of research that has found mindfulness is not only good for psychological health, but physical health too, as mindfulness has been found to increase immune system functioning.
Mindfulness techniques focus on awareness of thoughts and feelings without attachment or judgment. When we are having intense emotions, it is often because we are caught up in our catastrophic interpretations about what is going on. The more we become entangled in the thoughts about the situation, the worse it feels, and the more intense our emotions become. Mindfulness short-circuits this process by helping us to disentangle ourselves from our distorted thought patterns and connect to the actual situation. This enables us to more skillfully address the difficult situation, and to do so with less emotional reactivity and psychological suffering.