How to Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Overcome Stress, Anxiety, and Cognitive Distortions

Stress and anxiety tend to go hand-in-hand with migraine. The pain, fatigue, nausea, and uncertainty regarding treatment outcomes often feel like too much to handle.

Using CBT to control thought patterns

Thankfully, while we can’t control our illness, we do have control over our thought patterns, which may be increasing the stress and anxiety we feel. Changing cognitive distortions is one big way we can reduce stress and anxiety and increase hope. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help us do this.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) is a form of therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns into positive, healthy ones by focusing our attention on our negative thoughts and asking us to question and refute them. It then teaches us how to replace the thoughts with more accurate, more adaptive thoughts. The idea is that by continually questioning, refuting, and replacing a distortion, it begins to lose its power over us and we begin thinking in new ways.

How does CBT work?

Unlike traditional therapy, CBT works exclusively in the present, so you don’t have to expend valuable time and energy working out why you started engaging in a particular cognitive distortion. Instead, you work solely on recognizing and then changing the distortion. Best of all, you can practice CBT at home on your own.

Pay attention to your thought patterns

Step 1: Pay attention to your thought patterns and how they affect you.

A journal can help with this. Write down what you think and how you act for a day, a week, or a month (whatever makes you more aware of yourself without overwhelming you). Make special note of how your actions and thoughts make you feel.

Recognize negative thoughts

Step 2: Write down negative thoughts instead of accepting them as truth.

Once you’ve gotten used to identifying your thoughts, it’s time to tease out the maladaptive ones. Any time you hear yourself saying or thinking something negative that falls in line with one of the cognitive distortions, pause. Don’t accept it. Instead, write it down.

Evaluate negative thoughts

Step 3: Focus on the thought.

Ask yourself if the thought expressed on the page is helpful or unhelpful to your mental well being. Most importantly, is it even true?

Refute the negative thought and replace it

Step 4: Refute and replace it.

If you find the thought is unhelpful and inaccurate, as most cognitive distortions are, refute the distortion, and then replace the negative thought with a positive one. This is the most important step for changing your thought patterns. If you stop at step three, nothing will change. In fact, you may feel worse because you’re bringing extra attention to the negative thought without altering it. Don’t do that! Instead, follow the examples below.

An example of using CBT to focus on success

Example 1. If you’ve been engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, you may have the thought that because you were unable to do one thing – bake cookies for your child’s bake sale or meet a deadline at work – you’re a complete failure. To combat this, remind yourself of a time when you succeeded despite the obstacles of illness, and then offer yourself some compassion by saying something like “Considering the amount of pain I’m in right now, it’s amazing that I managed to get anything done. I’m proud of myself for [fill something in here, washing the dishes, making the bed, answering a work email, etc.].” By refuting the distortion with a reminder of something you did get done and replacing “I’m a failure” with “I’m proud of myself,” you’ve taken the first steps toward eradicating all-or-nothing thinking from your mind’s arsenal of tricks.

An example of using CBT to combat overgeneralizations

Example 2. If you’ve been personalizing everything, you may have the thought that your best friend’s neglectful attitude toward you is your fault. (Perhaps he or she hasn’t been able to get together for the past month or so.) You may be compounding this by jumping to conclusions (“He/She doesn’t want to be my friend anymore because I’m sick”) and/or overgeneralizing the neglect (“I can’t even keep my best friend; everyone is going to abandon me now.”)

Ask yourself questions

Instead of continuing to think these thoughts, stop. Ask yourself if you have any evidence that your friend’s inattention to you is your fault. Has he/she said something specific? If not, brainstorm other reasons why your friend might be out of touch. Did she get a new job? Does he have small children? How’s your friend’s marriage doing? Once you’ve entertained some other reasons why your friend isn’t hanging out, tell yourself your friend’s absence isn’t your fault. This should take care of the other thoughts as well.

Replace the overgeneralization with a positive thought

If you’re still feeling anxious, however, go ahead and refute and replace the overgeneralization too. Remind yourself of a time in childhood when you lost a close friend, and yet stayed friends with other people. Then say, “I have a supportive network around me, no matter what.” (Additional examples of negative migraine-specific thoughts and their replacements can be found in my book, Finding Happiness with Migraines: A Do It Yourself Guide.)

That’s it! There are additional layers to CBT, but following these four steps will start you on the path to increased positivity, better functionality, and reduced stress.


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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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