How do we use cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety?

Vassilia Binensztok, PhD, LMHC, NCC

You might have heard a lot of talk about cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and its benefits but still not be entirely sure what it is.  If you have ever heard that if you can change your thoughts, you can change your life, or that if you act on your dreams, you’ll be more confident, you’ve heard of cognitive and behavioral ideas.  CBT aims to change our thoughts and behaviors to help us feel better and achieve our goals.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy combines techniques from two schools of psychotherapy: cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy.  Cognitive therapy aims to change our thinking while behavioral therapy aims to change our actions. Combined, these evidence-based techniques are extremely effective for treating various mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, trauma, and more.

The following are cognitive-behavioral techniques commonly used for anxiety. The way they are applied varies from person to person and depends on the individual experience and context.  A therapist uses these techniques tailored to their individual client.

Rephrasing Thoughts

Rephrasing our thoughts is a cognitive technique.  This technique invites us to take inventory of our thoughts and the things we are telling ourselves.  We know that what we tell ourselves shapes our beliefs about ourselves and life, our emotions, and our behaviors.  When we are anxious, we often don’t see things accurately.  We might inflate situations, judging them to be more dangerous than they are.  We can worry about the future and start to think everything will turn out poorly.  We revert to black-and-white thinking about situations, stressing ourselves out even more.  When we analyze our thoughts, we can more objectively evaluate if they are accurate.  We can also change our thoughts to ones that are more empowering. Rephrasing our thoughts can have a drastic positive effect on our mood and behavior.

Relaxation Exercises

Relaxation exercises are behavioral interventions. They can include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and other coping skills.  Deep breathing helps calm our nervous system response to anxiety and is a fast and easy way to calm down. Progressive muscle relaxation helps us relax our muscles and become more in tune to whether we are tense or relaxed. Other coping skills include ways to improve the present moment: listening to music, exercising, stretching, meditating, socializing, etc.

Reducing Triggers

We can retrigger our anxiety in various ways.  We might be too vigilant, too avoidant, or too compulsive.  If we are too vigilant, we will notice every change in our bodies or environments and then ascribe some meaning to it.  This can trigger a cascade of anxiety.  We need to learn to calm our vigilant minds.  If we are too avoidant, we can go to great lengths to avoid the things we are afraid of.  Avoidance increases our anxiety so we have to learn to lean into situations. If we are compulsive, we might constantly expose ourselves to anxiety-provoking things, like reading about diseases when we are worried about getting sick or checking on an ex when we are trying to move on.  In this case, we need to learn to reduce those behaviors.

Anxiety can feel like a debilitating experience but it is something  that can be treated and controlled.  Cognitive-behavioral techniques, like the ones outlined above have been shown to be effective for anxiety and panic.  Many clients also find they can manage these symptoms without medication, since medication is often not an effective long-term solution.

If you need therapy for anxiety or a cognitive-behavioral therapist in Palm Beach Gardens or Jupiter, call for a complimentary phone consultation with an anxiety expert.

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