My ‘coulda shoulda woulda’ experience with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is one of the most common forms of therapy offered to patients in the UK who suffer with anxiety and depression. The name to me suggest that they drill a little hole in your head to see your inner most thoughts and feelings. This obviously isn’t the case, but don’t be put off by the complicated name. Cognitive basically means how you perceive and process information. Dictionary.com explains it better:

  1. Of/or relating to cognition; concerned with the act or process of knowing,perceiving, etc. :cognitive development; cognitive functioning.
  2. Of/or relating to the mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, and reasoning, as contrasted with emotional and volitional processes.

I first came across CBT when I suffered my first major breakdown. My mum was told by a colleague at work, that this had helped her daughter in the past. So she looked into getting me professional help. The waiting lists on the NHS were too long and I realised early on that the service was too unreliable, so my mum’s work kindly paid for me to go private.

I always imagined therapists being older with grey hair, sat on leather arms chairs next to mahogany bookcases.

I really didn’t know what to expect, I’d had a couple of counselling sessions at Uni but I didn’t find them very helpful at all, so I wasn’t too optimistic, but by this point I was willing to try anything.

The first session I went to with my mum and we met a therapist called Sarah. She was lovely, and strikingly pretty, she had a really nice calming nature and was very friendly and easy to talk to. It helped that she was fairly young, possibly in her 30s. For some reason I always imagined therapists being older with grey hair, sat on leather arms chairs next to mahogany bookcases (that’s a bit elaborate, but you get the point), it was nice to see Sarah smashing the stereotype I had created in my head.

We all discussed what the sessions would be like and how many sessions I’d have. We agreed to set 10 as a starting point. I felt as optimistic as I could feel at that point.

You’re sat there thinking to yourself is this working?

The next session we got to business. It’s funny though because when your family start to ask you how it’s going, you actually have no idea. You’re sat there thinking to yourself is this working?

At first it felt like I was just chatting about what was going on in my life, and I was often asked if I’d ever felt the same before in the past. This is where the confusion of the ‘therapy’ part came in for me. I’ve never been shy to talk about my feelings, especially to my family and friends so at one point I did feel like I could do this with anyone. But what I didn’t realise was that deep within our conversations was questions and suggestions that really made me think.

To explain the process better it was all about how thoughts affect your feelings, so if you have a thought and you think that thought often then you start to believe it and it makes you feel a certain way, so the process is all about rebalancing you thoughts and not catastrophising them.

Rating my feelings made them not seem as bad as I had created them in my head.

I was given homework to do, every time I had an overwhelming thought I had to write it down on a piece of paper and describe the feeling attached to the thought in one word. I would then rate the intensity of this feeling from 1-10. Rating my feelings made them not seem as bad as I had created them in my head. I recommend trying this, if you (like me) have an unhealthy habit of skipping to the worst case scenario immediately.

I’m not that frightened little girl anymore.

I read parts of my old diaries out and reflected upon my self-talk and what I’ve been telling myself over the years. I always suffered with my confidence as a child because I used to blush all the time, so I never liked being centre of attention. Blushing would make me panic and blush even more, then when I was in school people would laugh if you had a bright red face, which would make me go redder. I always felt like I was in a state of panic in case I was put on the spot or people paid me too much attention.

I needed to talk all this through to realise that actually I’ve grown in confidence through the years and I’m not that frightened little girl anymore.My thoughts were like Usain Bolt and there was no finish line.

The best thing I was told during this process though, was to follow your wants not your ‘shoulds’. I was given permission to be selfish. Granted it was so hard to follow this rule, but when I eventually got to the end of my therapy, I was leaving the country to do something that I actually wanted to do, instead of what I thought I should do, which was University. I was lucky, I realise it’s not as easy as this for other people but with no unmovable commitments I was able to pack my bags and leave for a little while.

My thoughts were like Usain Bolt and there was no finish line.

When we follow the ‘shoulds’ in your life you’re not following what you really want to do, you’re doing what you think society wants you to do. It’s like in films when characters are repressed and told what they should be doing, but then they reach a turning point and just accept themselves for who they are and what they want to do and they have this big moment. Therapy is a bit like this. It’s not a surprise that many of these films also feature the protagonist in their therapists office.

Equally we also should not dwell on the ‘woulds’ either because they aren’t useful to us anymore, just let them go.

Overall this experience was hugely beneficial to me. It helped me gain control agains. My thoughts were like Usain Bolt and there was no finish line, so I’m glad I managed to finally catch up. In the process, I dealt with my past so I could have a brighter future, and that is what I’m constantly striving to achieve.

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